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Miner gets year in prison for criminal violation of Clean Water Act

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published March 31, 2016

A federal judge on Thursday sentenced the operator of a platinum mine that discharged pollutants into a salmon-spawning river in Southwest Alaska to a year in prison and, following that, a year of supervised release.

The sentencing is part of the first federal case in Alaska charging a mining company and its key operators with criminal violations of the Clean Water Act.

James Slade, a Canadian resident who in 2010 and 2011 was chief operating officer of XS Platinum Inc., an Australian-led company, can spend the second year of his punishment — the supervised release — in Canada, said U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason.

Gleason's decision came after a sentencing hearing lasting almost four hours, and capped months of dispute between federal prosecutors and defendants in a major pollution case that has ensnared two other participants in the operation. The Australians who led the company, Bruce Butcher and Mark Balfour, have not responded to charges brought against them and have not been subject to extradition. The company appears to be defunct, prosecutors said.

At its Platinum Creek Mine near Kuskokwim Bay, XS Platinum processed platinum from old tailings along the Salmon River, in what should have been a cleanup of miles of old mining waste.

The defense argued that Slade could not get his Australian supervisors to send a key piece of equipment that would have stopped the mine from discharging wastewater into the river.

But Gleason said Slade could have walked away when he saw that the mine was polluting the river with excess turbidity that was "off the charts" and out of compliance with its permit and the law.

"Mr. Slade, as I see this case, really had a choice, and when it became clear the two Australians were adamant about making as much money as they could and to heck with any pollution control equipment, he could have walked away from this job," Gleason said.

Instead, Slade chose to "make as much money and platinum" as he could, Gleason said.

Gleason said the mine released "harmful metals" into the river, a statement that followed testimony from government witness — Lori Verbrugge, regional environmental contaminants coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — who took samples in 2011 near the mine and found levels of aluminum and copper that were high enough to kill fish within an hour.

Gleason accepted the sentence recommended by first assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Feldis following a plea deal in which Slade agreed he was guilty of one felony count of violating the Clean Water Act in 2011 through discharges of wastewater from the Platinum Creek Mine.

In a trial last fall, a jury found Slade guilty of two misdemeanor violations of the Clean Water Act, also related to discharges of wastewater. He was originally charged with six felonies, and while jurors found him not guilty of three, they deadlocked on three more. His guilty plea, which upgraded one of the misdemeanors to a felony, forestalled another trial.

Slade's defending attorney, John Irving with Holland and Knight, had argued for a period of probation or community and home confinement, rather than a year in prison.

Gleason said it was important to send a message to deter others who "seek to put profits ahead of environmental laws."

Two other company officials have also been found guilty of violations. James Staeheli, a plant operator from Cle Elum, Washington, pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count of violating the company's Clean Water Act permit through discharges of wastewater. Robert Pate, a career mining geologist from Spokane, Washington, pleaded guilty to two counts of discharging pollutants without a Clean Water Act permit and one count of submitting a false report.

The two are scheduled to be sentenced April 8 before Gleason.

On Thursday, a contrite Slade told the court he took responsibility for his actions.

"It has consequences," he said.