The penalty, which is among the largest assessed by the Washington state Department of Ecology over water quality violations, is likely to raise questions about the Canadian company’s plans to explore further for ore in the neighboring mountains.
Crown Resources Corp., a subsidiary of Toronto-based Kinross Gold Co., immediately announced in a statement that it would appeal. The company operates the Buckhorn Mountain mine near Chesaw, about 120 miles northwest of Spokane.
In 2011 and 2012, the mine’s groundwater capture zone failed to contain spring rains and snow melt, resulting in contaminated water reaching Gold Bowl Creek, the department said.
In addition, a 2011 landslide and its debris significantly damaged a large portion of Gold Bowl Creek’s stream channel, said the department, which estimates it will take years to stabilize and re-establish damaged soils and vegetation on the slope and along the creek. As a result, slope and stream bed erosion is expected to carry sediment down Gold Bowl Creek for years.
Waste water from the mine can carry high concentrations of heavy metals, such as copper, lead and zinc.
“Our concern is that their wastewater capture system needs to be able to handle storm water and snowmelt as well,” Ecology spokeswoman Joye Redfield-Wilder said. “This was not a catastrophic storm event, but that’s what we’re worried about in the future.”
Ecology issued a five-year permit to Crown Resources in September 2007. Since operations began that year, the department has issued an additional $62,000 in penalties over issues including storm water and slope failures.
The permit expires this fall.
In a statement, Crown Resources said it disputes some of the department’s findings, including the cause of the landslide in 2011, a period of unprecedented heavy rainfall and spring runoff near Gold Bowl Creek.
Many of the issues noted by department officials were self-reported and have been addressed, the company said, and it has worked closely with the state to review and mitigate these issues.
The company also said it has made numerous improvements in its water management system in the past year, doubling treatment capacity and installing more dewatering and monitoring wells to protect water quality.
“We are strongly committed to the protection of water quality and working with the regulatory authorities to maintain the highest environmental standards at Buckhorn,” the company statement said.
Another subsidiary of Kinross, Echo Bay Exploration, wants to explore for more gold on 10,000 acres surrounding the mine.
The latest penalty opens the door to finding solutions to the long-term water quality problems at the Buckhorn mine, said David Kliegman of the Okanogan Highlands Alliance, a nonprofit group that works to educate the public about watershed issues.
“It is time for Crown/Kinross to follow through with their commitments and implement changes that are needed to improve the prospect of long-term environmental protection,” he said in a statement.
The state maintains that the amount of rainfall preceding the landslide was not “unprecedented,” Redfield-Wilder said.
She also said the department recognizes the fine will raise questions about any additional exploration in the mountains, but she added that maintaining water quality is central to the current mine’s operations.
“We know this is an economic base in the region, and we want them to succeed,” she said. “But we need them to respond to these concerns.”
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