Appeals Court Comes to Okanogan

On March 14, 2019, the Washington Court of Appeals Division III brought oral arguments in Crown vs Ecology to the Okanogan County Commissioners Hearing Room. The case, in which OHA is an intervener, began with Crown appealing the 2014 renewal of the discharge permit for the mine. After a seven-day trial-like hearing in January 2015, the Pollution Control Hearings Board, decided in favor of Ecology and OHA, affirming that the water surrounding the Buckhorn Mine must be left almost as clean as it was before mining. Crown appealed that decision to the Ferry County Superior Court where Crown also lost. Crown appealed to the Court of Appeal. Crown has asserted that the permit should be stayed (on hold) until the appeal process is exhausted. This assertion has been rejected in each stage of the appeal. While Ecology has issued Notices of Violation, the agency has not yet taken further enforcement action regarding the hundreds of violations.

Click here to listen to the recording of the arguments of this case, #351998.

Permit Needs Enforcement

Water quality at the Buckhorn Mine is regulated by the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, under the Clean Water Act. The continuous water quality permit violations at the Buckhorn Mine started shortly after mining operations began and have increased to the present day. The Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) has the responsibility to uphold and enforce the discharge permit. Over the past decade, OHA has regularly suggested corrective actions that would increase understanding of the contaminant flows at the mine site and lead to long-term solutions to the water quality problems.

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2015 Permit Renewal

Water surrounding the Buckhorn Mine must be left as clean as it was prior to mining

Background for 2015 discharge permit renewal:
Discharges at the Buckhorn Mine are regulated by the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) under the U.S. Clean Water Act. The NPDES permit must be renewed every five years. The first Buckhorn Mine NPDES permit went into effect in November 2007, there was a permit modification in June 2009, and it expired in November 2012. The WA Department of Ecology (Ecology) temporarily extended the permit due to complications stemming from significant violations for which a penalty was issued in July 2012. Crown/Kinross appealed the penalty. The second NPDES permit was issued in February 2014 and was appealed by Crown/Kinross the next day. Ecology issued a permit modification in April 2014 and again on April 1, 2015.

The penalty that Ecology issued in July 2012, was for $395,000, the largest in WA State history. Almost a year later, in June 2013, Crown/Kinross and Ecology settled the penalty for the permit violations, in order to break through the deadlock and start finding solutions to the water quality problems at the mine. The penalty settlement forgave all previous water quality violations at the mine, and agreed to a timetable for the issuance of the discharge permit and other provisions. In October 2013, after over 30 meetings with the mining company and their consultants, a draft NPDES permit was presented by Ecology to the public for comment. OHA submitted over 200 pages of comments, including a 3D visualization of the capture zone, which is posted online at: youtu.be/SPE5waXRjfU. OHA pushed for the NPDES renewal to hold the company to discharging water that is as clean as streams and groundwater were before mining began (background levels). There is no reason that higher levels of contaminants should be allowed than were originally present in local streams and groundwater.

The 15 month overdue new permit was issued on February 27, 2014. Despite verbal assurance during the penalty settlement negotiations that they would not appeal the new NPDES, Kinross submitted an appeal to the Pollution Control Hearings Board (PCHB), one day after the permit was issued.

Buckhorn mine
Left to right: Aerial of Buckhorn Mine; mine and waste rock; 2011 landslide in Gold Bowl Creek; culvert with sediment

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