Buckhorn Mine: An Economical and Environmental Success Story

Right now, in the midst of challenging economic times across America, I am excited to join in celebrating an economic success story in Okanogan County.  Kinross Buckhorn Mine opened its doors in October – and will soon produce gold and 180 jobs.  For years, Okanogan County struggled as orchards were taken out of production and cattle were removed from public lands.  Re-invigorating this mine is critical to our region’s resource based economy, our mining industry had a $2.5 billion impact in 2005.

Recently I attended the opening of the Buckhorn Mine, which was a long time coming— more than a dozen lawsuits and 18 years before the mine could be open.  Despite being a resource rich country, we are opening fewer and fewer mines.   

We should be taking advantage of the fact that the United States is one of the world’s largest producers and consumers of minerals and metals. We use them in our everyday life – they are essential to our economic and national security.  Yet, I am concerned that we are becoming increasingly dependent upon foreign countries to provide critical minerals that are needed to make Boeing airplanes, superconductors, or military equipment. In fact, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, reliance on mineral imports has nearly doubled in the past decade.  We can’t afford to be dependent on foreign countries for our minerals – like we are for our oil and gas 

One reason for declining development of mineral resources in this country is an increasingly burdensome state and federal regulatory structure.  In fact, Washington state regulation nearly stopped this project.

The year was 1994 and I was a newly-elected State Representative.  Battle Mountain Gold owned what is now the Kinross Buckhorn mine, and state legislation threatened to stop any new mine in Washington State.  Such a law would have had devastating impacts on the people and jobs in Northeast Washington. 

As a Republican leader on the Resources Committee I worked to protect our mining economy in Eastern Washington. With the help of Senator Bob Morton, the mining industry and environmental groups, we went to work and ultimately passed bipartisan legislation that kept mining in Washington state.

As permitting for the Crown Jewel proceeded, we continued helping the mine navigate the bureaucracy.  We brought agencies and company officials together and resolved permitting issues for companies, including mining companies, which wanted to do business in our state.  In the district, we helped constituents understand mining issues, addressed their concerns and answered their questions.  Today, State Representative Joel Kretz is continuing the fight to allow us to use our natural resources.

However, Battle Mountain Gold still faced more than 60 state and federal permitting hurdles.  The project withstood administrative challenges to every permit and the Record of Decision as well as several legal challenges. After spending more than $85 million on the project, Battle Mountain Gold was on the verge of receiving its operating permit when it was taken hostage by the Department of the Interior and it’s Solicitor, who attempted to change 127 years of law with the stroke of his pen.  The process took 15 years, at a cost of $90 million. 

When I came to Congress I secured a seat on the Resources Committee so I could continue to work issues that are critical to our region.  I served as Chair of a Task Force on NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act).  It is through NEPA that we get Environmental Impact Statements and it is NEPA that allows projects, like Buckhorn, to get caught up in years and years of litigation. 

NEPA started as a single paragraph statute in 1969—one paragraph on one page.  Today, it spans 25 pages and has resulted in more than 1,500 court cases.  NEPA was hailed as visionary when it was signed into law, yet has since become a process that is too often used to delay, if not halt projects, and has produced unintended consequences.

This is simply unacceptable. We live in a resource rich country and we should not be strangling ourselves economically by not utilizing the resources we have been given or by putting them off limits. We need to make some changes.  Technology has advanced to allow projects to move forward in an environmentally-friendly way.

On a trade mission I led to Canada I learned that there are different, better ways to address some of the regulations we have in the United States. It is interesting to note that in Canada, once you have gone through the environmental planning process no lawsuits can take place once a permit has been issued. This means they are not faced with frivolous delays like we are with NEPA.

We need to work together to support common sense solutions to establish and maintain regulatory certainty and predictability for the mining industry and reduce excessive, duplicative and expensive permitting delays. I am glad that Kinross successfully navigated these challenges to get us to the grand opening of the Buckhorn Mine.  But looking to the future we can and must do better.

–By Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers

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