Crime & Courts

Former operator of Southwest Alaska mine admits knowingly polluting Salmon River

A plea agreement filed Friday says former XS Platinum Inc. mine operator James Slade plans to plead guilty to a felony violation of the federal Clean Water Act, avoiding a potential second trial.

Slade signed the agreement, admitting he broke the law by discharging dirty water from his company's placer mine into the Salmon River in Southwest Alaska. He admitted he failed to report the pollution as his mining permit required, and to using fresh water instead of recycled water at the mine as outlined in a mining permit.

Federal prosecutors alleged XS Platinum Inc. and its executives and on-site managers violated clean water regulations when they intensified efforts to recover platinum from an old mine on the edge of Kuskokwim Bay during its 2010 and 2011 mining seasons. The operation allowed dirty water stored in a pond to enter the river, they said.

Slade -- a mining consultant from Calgary, Alberta, who became chief operating officer for XS Platinum in 2010 -- was originally charged with six felonies. A federal jury in Anchorage found him guilty of two misdemeanors related to the Clean Water Act in October.

The jury deliberated for two days before finding Slade not guilty of half of his alleged crimes. At that time, prosecutors said they would decide whether to retry Slade for charges on which jurors were deadlocked.

According to the agreement, Slade is now admitting guilt to a felony. He'd been convicted of the same crime at the misdemeanor level, said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Feldis. The difference in the upgraded charge is he knowingly broke the law instead of simply acting irresponsibly.

"Mr. Slade is looking forward to accepting responsibility and putting this matter behind him," said defense attorney John Irving. "The offense he accepts to plea to is a general intent crime and does not require knowledge that he was in violation of the law."

Feldis said the government was prepared to retry Slade, a decision they conveyed to Slade's lawyers. He said he was confident the second trial would have resulted in convictions, but the agreement was an appropriate resolution.

"(A trial) is an investment of time and resources," Feldis said.

Prosecutors said they won't prosecute Slade further on the charges or any other offenses related to the pollution -- if he follows all terms of the agreement, which include providing "truthful information" to the government.

If that happens, the prosecution will recommend Slade be sentenced to no more than a year in prison for the misdemeanor and felony. The more serious charge carries penalties of up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, or $50,000 for every day a violation was committed.

But Slade likely will not pay a fine. The plea agreement says that the parties agreed Slade is unable to pay a fine or restitution. Feldis said Slade testified at length during a hearing after the trial about the lack of funds.

When Slade was convicted, the government tried to get a $50,000 bond to ensure he show up for sentencing. The court opted to take his passport once it was determined he couldn't pay the bond. In a mid-October court filing, Slade asked the court return his passport because he was "starting a project in Nevada." However, prosecutors noted in the plea agreement that Slade could be deported for the felony and not allowed back in the United States.

A hearing for the plea change hasn't been set. Prosecutors have asked the judge to order a hearing within 30 days, but Slade's attorneys asked that it be held in January.

Jerzy Shedlock

Jerzy Shedlock is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.