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Originally published Friday, April 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Truce clears way for Buckhorn Mountain gold mine

Over the years, the battle for Buckhorn Mountain, a remote peak just south of the Canadian border in north-central Washington, has helped...

Seattle Times environment reporter

Over the years, the battle for Buckhorn Mountain, a remote peak just south of the Canadian border in north-central Washington, has helped unseat a U.S. senator, dashed the hopes of mining companies and rallied environmentalists.

Now, after two decades of controversy, environmental groups and the Canadian mining company Kinross on Thursday agreed to a truce that will finally allow gold mining to start at the Okanogan County mine as early as August.

Under the settlement announced Thursday, weeks before testimony was to begin in the latest round of legal appeals, Kinross will be allowed to tunnel deep into Buckhorn Mountain for up to eight years in hopes of digging out a million ounces of gold worth as much as $940 million at Thursday's prices.

In return, the company promises to pay for independent monitoring for pollution in nearby creeks. It also agrees to pipe water into streams to ensure they don't run dry and do other work to protect and restore streams and wetlands.

After years of fighting, environmentalists who had worked on the case expressed both elation and resignation.

"We're pretty excited," said David Kliegman, who heads the Okanogan Highlands Alliance and has been resisting the mine since the early 1990s. "We're still pretty concerned about the impacts, but we think we've gotten enough mitigation."

Meanwhile, Lauren Roberts, general manager of the Kinross operations that include the mine and a nearby ore mill, said the deal gives the company certainty and assures nearby communities will get roughly 200 mine-related jobs.

"These are good family-wage jobs in a very economically depressed area," Roberts said. "So having that settlement means a lot to these local communities."

Alex Wirt, a city councilman in Republic, the town of roughly 1,000 where a mill will extract gold from the rocks, confirmed that sentiment.

"How do you spell 'yahoo'?" he said when asked for a reaction to the news.

A back-and-forth fight

While some had hoped to stop the mine altogether, the one now planned for Buckhorn Mountain is a far cry from the massive open-pit mine first proposed in the 1990s.

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Then, the proposed Crown Jewel Mine, as it was known, would have blasted away much of the 5,600-foot mountain, leaving behind acres of leftover rock and a huge open-pit lake.

The plan set off a back-and-forth fight that had the mine on the verge of defeat one year and victory the next.

It appeared dead in early 1999, when two federal agencies under the Clinton administration said the proposal was illegal. But Republican U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, Washington's senior senator at the time, revived the mine's hopes later that year by attaching a last-minute clause to legislation to approve the mine.

That maneuver became a prominent issue in Gorton's re-election race in 2000, when Democrat Maria Cantwell ran television ads criticizing him for it. She scored a narrow victory that November.

The mine promoters finally scrapped the open-pit plan in 2001, after a state board ruled the proposal posed too much environmental risk. One mining company pulled out, and in 2006 Kinross acquired the other company, Crown Resources.

"The big victory, I guess, was stopping the open pit in 2000," Kliegman said.

Monitoring streams

Now all the mining at Buckhorn Mountain will happen underground. Instead of milling the ore on site by mixing it with water and cyanide, it will be trucked to an existing mill near Republic.

Kliegman's group had opposed the new mine, too, largely out of concerns it could disrupt groundwater that feeds creeks because water would be pumped off the mountain to prevent mine flooding and pollution.

Under the settlement, Kinross and its subsidiary agree to pipe some of that water to streams that would otherwise be affected by the pumping. It will pay for the monitoring, and will pay for the Highlands Alliance to hire its own people to double-check the monitoring.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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