By Ann McCreary
A Canadian mining company is proposing to conduct exploratory drilling in a search for copper on Flagg Mountain near Mazama, with the intention of beginning in August.
The company is proposing to drill 15 holes to depths of up to 1,900 feet on U.S. Forest Service land in an operation that would include day and night shifts. The project goal is to determine if there are sufficient copper resources to warrant future mining.
The Forest Service is analyzing measures to minimize the environmental effects of the minerals exploration, and is seeking public comment by May 17 on the minerals exploration proposal.
Under longstanding federal mining law, the mining company — Blue River Resources Ltd., headquartered in Vancouver, B.C. — has a statutory right to explore for and develop mineral resources on federally administered land, said Jennifer Zbyszewski, recreation, wilderness and minerals program manager for the Methow Valley Ranger District.
“They have the right to go ahead and do this,” Zbyszewski said. It’s the responsibility of the Forest Service, she said, to ensure the mining operation is in compliance with federal environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.
“We’re looking at what the impacts will be on water, fish, air, wildlife and people,” Zbyszewski said.
The Forest Service was contacted about a year ago by Blue River Resources and Discovery Consultants, a mineral exploration consulting firm in Vernon, B.C., that represents Blue River Resources in the permitting process.
Discovery Consultants initially informed the Forest Service of the intent to begin drilling last September, according to correspondence provided by the Forest Service. Forest Service and mining representatives have been discussing details of the proposed operation during the past year, Zbyszewski said.
The Forest Service is working “to provide Discovery Consultants the opportunity to expeditiously conduct mineral exploration in order to acquire detailed geologic data within the project area to determine the extent of mineral resources,” said Mike Liu, Methow Valley district ranger, in a scoping letter released last week describing the project.
Limited time frame
The time frame for conducting the drilling is limited because the operation would take place in critical habitat for spotted owls and isn’t permitted during nesting season, Zbyszewski said. Spotted owls are protected as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
“There are limited activities that can happen in spotted owl habitat during nesting season,” Zbyszewski said. “It has to do with the noise that would be generated by drilling equipment.” The nesting period in this area extends from spring through July, so no drilling could take place until August.
The area to be drilled would be accessed by Goat Creek Road, Forest Service Road 4200, which closes to vehicle traffic Nov. 31-March 31 because it is a groomed snowmobile trail. Therefore, drilling would need to take place between August and the end of November.
The proposed drill sites are located between Forest Service roads to Goat Peak and Cub Creek, a distance of about two miles as the crow flies from Mazama Junction, Zbyszewski said.
The project area is not near any residential developments, and would not be visible from the valley floor, Zbyszewski said. She said the closest residence is a small cabin known as the “hanging hut,” which is a part-time residence and the subject of a lawsuit because of its location on the edge of Flagg Mountain.
In a letter to Discovery Consultants, Liu noted that a number of activities take place in the Flagg Mountain area, including biking and hiking, hut rentals, hang gliding, outfitter guides and cattle grazing.
The potential for copper deposits in this area has captured the interest of mining companies for decades, and evidence of past exploration, including drill sites and ore carts, can be seen in places. Drilling was conducted there in the 1970s and ’80s, and most recently in 2008 by a company called Pacific Copper Corporation.
Blue River Resources describes itself as “a mineral exploration and development company focused on discovering and developing copper deposits in the Quesnel Trough Copper Belt of British Columbia and Washington.”
The Mazama deposits are on the southern end of the Quesnel Trough, “recognized as one of the largest copper belts in the world, trending for over 2,000 kilometers (with) eight producing copper mines and numerous copper deposits,” according to the Blue River Resources website.
Blue River Resource’s “Mazama Copper Project” is described as a “near-surface, bulk-tonnage copper deposit with an historic copper resource of 149 million tons grading 0.36 percent copper or approximately one billion pounds of copper.”
Copper prices up
The exploration proposed for this year is to “confirm and expand the historic copper resource,” the company said. The project includes “a property-wide geophysical (magnetic) survey and a detailed surface mapping and sampling program.”
The website states that the Mazama copper deposit was extensively drilled in the early 1970s but further action was shelved because of low copper prices.
The price of copper has trended upward in the past decade, and has tripled in value from about $1 per pound in 2004 to its current rate of about $3 per pound, according to Investmentmine, a mining website. Copper ore is mined both underground and on the surface with open-pit mines.
Blue River acquired an option to “earn a 100 percent interest in the Mazama Project in February 2013,” according to the company website. Mazama Minerals Inc., a company registered in Nevada, holds the claim to the mineral rights, according to information provided to the Forest Service.
The Forest Service project description said the minerals exploration would use a Hydrocore 200 diamond drill mounted on skids that would be transported to and from the area on a low-bed trailer towed by truck. It would be moved between drill sites on skids.
The operation would include a day shift and night shift.
The Forest Service project description did not include information regarding the noise level produced during drilling or how far away it could be heard. Discovery Consultants did not respond to a request from the Methow Valley News for further details.
The project would use existing Forest Service roads to minimize ground disturbance, according to the scoping letter. Some Forest Service roads that are currently blocked or overgrown would be opened to access drill sites, and the roads would be closed or decommissioned and restored to their previous condition after the drilling is completed.
Water for the proposed operation would be trucked in from a source off the national forest to fill a portable water tank. Zbyszewski said she did not know where the water would be obtained.
A sump would be constructed next to each drill site to hold debris from the test holes, water used in the drilling, and drilling additives. Additives would not be hazardous substances and would include gels, linseed lubricant, rod grease and biodegradable polymers, according to an operations plan provided by Blue River Resources in August 2013.
Each sump would be about 10 feet by 3 feet and 2 feet deep, and would be filled in at each site after drilling is completed. The test holes would also be sealed when work is completed.
Spill containment systems would be placed under drill rigs and drilling equipment would be staged on road surfaces, with the holes drilled near roads. Each drill hole will take eight to 10 days to complete, depending on the depth of the hole, according to Discovery Consultants.
Each drill site will be approximately 1,600 square feet, Zbyszewski said. If all 15 are drilled, that would be 24,000 square feet, or about one half-acre directly impacted by the drilling.
The project requires only a “low-level” environmental review because it is categorized as a “short term mineral … investigation,” Zbyszewski said. This “categorical exclusion” applies to projects “that typically don’t have extreme environmental effects,” she said.
“We will gather input from the public and do the rest of our site analysis. If we don’t find extraordinary circumstances we can proceed with a low level of NEPA [National Environmental Protection Act] documentation,” she said.
The analysis will be documented in a decision memo, signed by Liu, that will include specific required mitigation to minimize impacts and address public comments. If comments are received during public review, there will be a 45-day appeal period after the decision memo is signed, Liu said in a letter to Discovery Consultants.
If the decision is appealed, the project cannot begin until all appeals are resolved or the decision is affirmed by a deciding official, Liu said.
Mazama businessman Bill Pope, owner of the Mazama Country Inn, was gathering information about the project this week. “I’m trying to raise the alarms to get people to be curious about this and hopefully submit comments on this,” Pope said Monday (April 21).
“We don’t know the source of the water [used in the drilling], we don’t know anything about the noise levels or the impact on species. We don’t know anything about how this operation is going to affect us over the summer,” Pope said.
He said the potential for future mining presented by the minerals exploration project was an alarming prospect.
“Is this really how you imagine the Methow Valley? An open pit copper mine in the middle of the prime recreational and wildlife habitat in the valley is the worst thing I can imagine,” Pope said.
Previous mineral explorations around Flagg Mountain never led to active mining, however “the price of copper is different” now, Zbyszewski said.
“If they do decide that they want to mine, then it would be a long process” involving far more extensive environmental review, she said.