OLYMPIA — A federal judge has ruled that Crown Resources committed thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act in its operation of the Buckhorn Mountain gold mine in Okanogan County. The order comes as part of Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s ongoing environmental citizen suit against Crown Resources and Kinross Gold.
Despite public assertions that “Crown adhered to the highest environmental standards during operation and closure of the Buckhorn Mine,” Crown now stipulates to more than 3,000 violations of the Clean Water Act.
Judge Mary K. Dimke issued the order finding partial liability in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington.
The penalties Crown will face for these violations will be determined at a later phase of the case. Kinross is not part of today’s order, and the case against that company is ongoing. The companies could face millions of dollars in penalties for their pollution.
“Buckhorn Mountain is one of the unspoiled natural areas of our state,” Ferguson said. “These companies had a responsibility, and legal obligation to protect it. They failed in that responsibility, thousands of times. We will continue our work to hold them accountable.”
Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson had previously dismissed the companies’ main defenses, writing in the ruling that there is “no support” for their claims that the Attorney General’s Office cannot enforce all of the mine’s Clean Water Act permit.
The lawsuit was filed with consultation from the Washington State Department of Ecology. Okanogan Highlands Alliance, a citizen group that has long monitored water quality issues at the Buckhorn mine, filed a similar lawsuit in April 2020.
Crown Resources and its parent company, Kinross Gold, own Buckhorn Mountain gold mine, a 50-acre underground mine in Okanogan County located approximately 100 miles northeast of Twisp and about four miles from the Canadian border. From 2008 to 2017, the companies extracted approximately $1.3 billion in gold from the mine’s miles of underground tunnels. A majority of these tunnels lie below the water table. Ore extraction stopped in 2017, but contaminants continue to be released from the mine.
Since the mine’s construction, it has released pollutants to waters in and around the mine — including both groundwater and nearby streams, which flow into the Kettle River. These pollutants include aluminum, ammonia, arsenic, lead and nitrates. These contaminants are harmful to people, water ecosystems and fish species like trout.
Prior to the mine’s construction, these streams were largely untouched and showed little evidence of contamination from human activity.
Crown and Kinross knew about the potential for pollution before the mine was constructed. The state conducted an environmental review of Crown’s mine proposal prior to the mine’s construction. The review identified potential impacts to nearby waters, noting that the mine would create the risk of “acid mine drainage” — highly acidic liquid, often containing toxic metals, that drains off a mine’s newly excavated rock and ore. The review also noted that the use of explosives like dynamite at the mine could release pollutants into nearby waters.
Entities that release pollutants into Washington waterways are required by law to obtain a water quality permit from the state. The water quality permit for the Buckhorn mine requires Crown to capture and treat water impacted by the mine’s operations, including stormwater, wastewater and contaminated groundwater.
Ferguson’s lawsuit asserts the companies repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act, doing little to comply with its water quality permit and contain the pollution from the mine. Since 2015, the mine has not properly captured contaminated water, allowing contaminants to consistently escape the mine at levels well above those allowed by their water quality permit.
Ferguson’s lawsuit asks the court to require Crown to meet the terms of their permit, remediating damage from years of pollution. The lawsuit asks the court to award monetary penalties and attorney’s fees. The maximum penalty under the Clean Water Act is $54,800 per violation, per day, for up to five years. The Attorney General’s Office estimates that the potential Clean Water Act penalty could be in the millions of dollars.
Assistant Attorneys General Elizabeth Harris, Junine So, and Dan Von Seggern and Paralegals Tricia Kealy, Tanya Rose-Johnston and Virginia Castro with the Environmental Protection Division, and Assistant Attorneys General Kelly Wood and Chris Reitz with the Ecology Division, are handling this case on behalf of the Attorney General’s Office.