Operators of the Buckhorn Mountain gold mine in Okanogan County violated the Clean Water Act thousands of times, a federal judge ruled this week.
Crown Resources and its parent company, Kinross Gold, operated the 50-acre mine just a few miles south of the Canadian border. The mine helped unearth $1.3 billion in gold while it was active from 2008 to 2017.
On Tuesday, Judge Mary Dimke issued an order in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington in which she found Crown Resources liable for more than 3,000 violations of the landmark Clean Water Act, and that the operator knew the mine would risk polluting the water table and nearby bodies of water with aluminum, ammonia, arsenic, lead and nitrates.
The ruling comes amid Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s lawsuit against Crown and Kinross, which alleges the companies knew the mine would cause significant amounts of environmental pollution before the facility was constructed.
It hasn’t been determined yet what fines will be demanded of Crown Resources, and Kinross Gold isn’t a part of Dimke’s order this week, but both companies “could face millions of dollars in penalties for their pollution,” Ferguson said in a statement published Wednesday.
“Buckhorn Mountain is one of the unspoiled natural areas of our state,” Ferguson said in the release. “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.”
Ferguson’s lawsuit demands remediation for “years of pollution,” asserting both companies violated the Clean Water Act by failing to comply with water quality permits and requirements to contain pollution.
In a statement Thursday to The Seattle Times, a Kinross representative said the mine’s water permit is “unreasonable, based on faulty assumptions, and did not properly consider natural background levels.” The parent company holds that water discharged from the mine’s treatment facility is safe to drink, and that the attorney general’s lawsuit fails to identify damage to people or marine life.
The company “intends to vigorously defend this lawsuit as it progresses and stands firmly behind its protection of the environment and effective reclamation,” Kinross spokesperson Deana Zakar said.
The Clean Water Act, a version of which was enacted in 1948 then bolstered in 1972, is the country’s foremost legislation regulating the pollution and protection of all bodies of water.
The mine has been the subject of local and legal opposition since before it was constructed and after it was shut down.
Last year in June, U.S. District Judge Rosanna Peterson struck down the mining company’s defenses, denying their claim the attorney general cannot enforce all of the mine’s permits under the Clean Water Act. The main issue since then, according to Ferguson’s office, has been figuring out how much the operators owe in fines.