CHESAW, Wash. – For nearly 20 years, miners and environmentalists battled over Buckhorn Mountain, a knobby outcropping in the Okanogan Highlands.
The 5,800-foot mountain near the Canadian border contains roughly 1 million ounces of gold, worth about $900 million at today’s prices. But years of permit battles and litigation stymied efforts to extract the gold.
The stalemate ended this spring when mine opponents, including the Okanogan Highlands Alliance, agreed to drop challenges to the Buckhorn Mine’s water rights and other permits. In return, Kinross Gold Corp., the mine’s owner, agreed to pay for an estimated $5 million in additional water-quality monitoring and other mitigation. “When you look at the Buckhorn Mine, you’re looking at the future of mining,” Tye Burt, Kinross’ chief executive officer, told a crowd of about 120 who attended an open house at the mine on Wednesday.
The $160 million Buckhorn Mine will employ about 180 workers at the mine site and milling operations in nearby Kettle Falls. Ore production is scheduled to start in about two weeks. The mine has a 7 1/2-year projected life, with an annual payroll in the $14 million range.
Burt said the mine will demonstrate that Kinross can fulfill a social contract that includes jobs for the local community, profits for shareholders and safeguards for the environment.
Environmentalists view the April accord cautiously.
“We still have many concerns,” said Dave Kliegman, executive director of the Okanogan Highlands Alliance. “You can’t have a large-scale industrial facility on top of a mountain without problems. …We’re hopeful and optimistic that this company has made a commitment to having a clean operation, but only time will tell.”
In the semi-arid region, Kliegman said water is a central concern. Five streams flow from Buckhorn Mountain, feeding water sources for ranchers and homeowners. As part of the agreement, Kinross will pay for annual, independent audits of its water monitoring for nearly two decades. The company also will provide funds for Okanogan Highlands Alliance to hire its own experts for audits and random sampling.
The collaborative effort on monitoring “brings up the community’s confidence level,” said Richard Salopek, Buckhorn Mine’s environmental engineer. “You know what this outside entity working in your community is doing behind the fence.”
As mining companies and environmental groups work to avoid costly litigation, these types of agreements are becoming more common, said Laura Skaer, the Northwest Mining Association’s executive director.
“Putting the money into the ground in improvements,” Skaer said, “is better than paying a bunch of lawyers for three to four years.”
In another recent example, the Idaho Conservation League agreed not to challenge a new cobalt mine near Salmon, Idaho. In return, the mine’s owner – Formation Capital – agreed to additional water treatment. The Vancouver, B.C. company also pledged to spend $150,000 per year on improving salmon and steelhead habitat.
“Rather than suing and fighting each other, we can better protect Idaho and its water,” said Mari-Ann Green, Formation Capital’s chief executive officer.
Formation Capital actively courted the Idaho Conservation League. Initially, “they had some pretty skeptical conservationists,” said Rick Johnson, the league’s executive director. “The biggest concern for us is that people come in and they get a mineral. Then they leave, and they leave a big mess.”
Formation Capital was willing to put up additional bonding for water treatment. That proved the company was sincere, Johnson said.
Years of controversy dogged the Buckhorn Mine project, which has had several owners.
The mine was initially proposed as Washington’s first large open-pit operation. In 1999, U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton tacked approval of the mine’s operating permit onto an emergency spending bill for Kosovo. The action was widely criticized by Gorton’s critics, and may have contributed to the Republican senator’s defeat in the 2000 election.
The Buckhorn Mine was later retooled as an underground project. About 3 1/2 years ago, Kinross acquired the mine site.
The new owners set out to work with the community and the mine’s critics “in a transparent way,” Kinross’ Burt said. Everyone profited from the cooperation, he said. The Buckhorn Mine became the first new mine permitted under Washington’s 1995 Metals Mining Act, though several older mines have reopened since the act was rewritten.
“This is a day some folks thought would never happen,” Burt said Wednesday.