Community reps question copper mining project

Red circles indicate proposed exploratory drilling sites. Map by Darla Hussey

Red circles indicate proposed exploratory drilling sites. Map by Darla Hussey

By Ann McCreary

Community members and representatives of environmental groups met Monday (April 28) with U.S. Forest Service officials to discuss concerns about exploratory drilling for copper proposed to take place as early as August near Flagg Mountain in Mazama.

Concerns included potential impacts on wildlife and water, noise levels that might be produced by the drilling, and whether the Canadian company backing the “Mazama Copper Project” has the financial resources to undertake the project.

The meeting was called at the request of concerned community members after the Forest Service released a scoping letter last week describing a proposal to drill as many as 15 test holes of up to 1,900 feet deep in the vicinity of Flagg Mountain to determine if there are sufficient copper resources to mine. The project would be conducted by Blue River Resources Ltd, which describes itself as a “mineral exploration and development company.” The company lists addresses in Vancouver, B.C., and in Cheyenne, Wyo.

Under federal mining laws, Blue River Resources, which has acquired interest in the mineral rights on the property, has the statutory right to explore for and develop mineral resources on federal property.

The mining company contacted the Forest Service last year and proposed drilling five holes. It later revised the operating plan to include up to 15 holes drilled by crews working day and night.

Methow Valley District Ranger Michael Liu explained to 11 community and conservation group members at Monday’s meeting that because the project is a short-term mineral investigation that will last less than one year, it is “categorically excluded” from the more extensive analysis of an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement (EIS).

Limited time to drill

Because the area in which the project will take place is critical habitat for spotted owls, drilling will not be allowed until at least Aug. 1, when the owls’ nesting season is finished, and must be completed before Nov. 31, when roads in the area are closed and groomed for snowmobile trails.

The company estimated that each hole will take eight to 10 days to complete.

“Is it technically do-able in the time frame the company describes?” asked David Kliegman of Okanogan Highlands Alliance.

“My guess is if they chose to go to 15 [holes] they’ll bring an additional drill rig in,” Liu said.

Asked whether the addition of another drilling rig would change the Forest Service’s analysis of the project, Liu said the “cumulative noise could be an issue.”

“You’re treating this as if it will be completed in one year. What if they come back for another categorical exclusion,” asked Melanie Rowland of the Methow Valley Citizens Council. “Isn’t it incumbent on the Forest Service to determine if it’s feasible to complete in one year?”

Victoria Wilkins, environmental coordinator for the Methow Valley Ranger District, said there is not a limit on subsequent exclusions, but there “can’t be cumulative effects” on the environment from the project.

“Obviously if they come in next year … I’d say, ‘why didn’t you include this last year?’” Liu said. “I have no reason to believe they have ulterior motives to piecemeal this thing out.”

Duncan Bronson of Winthrop said he has looked into Blue River Resources’ financial reports and questioned the company’s capability to carry out the project.

“Did you get a financial statement from these guys, because in 2013 they didn’t have any money in the bank,” Bronson said.

He said it appears the company may be trying to attract investors and drive up stock prices by conducting some exploration. Bronson said a similar pattern appeared to have taken place in 2007 when Pacific Copper Corporation acquired mineral rights in Mazama and conducted exploratory drilling in the same area, then subsequently sold the mineral rights.

The rights were acquired by Mazama Minerals Inc., a company registered in Nevada. Blue River Resources acquired an option to “100 percent interest in the Mazama Project” in February 2013, according to the company website.

“They’re going to go in there and maybe drill and maybe not,” Bronson said. “They come in, sell their stock, and then disappear.” “As long as they are progressing in a logical manner, doing what you expect a copper company to do, there’s nothing the Forest Service can do about it,” Liu said.

More restrictions possible

Although environmental reviews for categorically excluded projects like the Mazama Copper Project are not as extensive as those requiring an environmental assessment or EIS, Wilkins said the Forest Service can require mitigation and attach conditions to the permit.

If in conducting its environmental analysis of the project the Forest Service finds “extraordinary circumstances,” the agency could decide that it requires more in-depth study, Liu said. The Forest Service will require that the project area, and Forest Service roads that will be used during the drilling, be restored to their previous condition after the exploratory drilling is complete. The company will be required to post a bond to assure that the restoration work is completed, Liu said.

The project calls for using a Hydrocore 200 diamond drill mounted on skids. The drill would be transported to and from the area on a low-bed trailer towed by a truck. Drill sites would be located next to Forest Service roads to minimize ground disturbance. Drilling would take place 24 hours a day by crews working day and night shifts.

Some temporary roads that are currently blocked or overgrown would be opened to access the drill sites, then closed and decommissioned when drilling is completed.

Water for the operation would be trucked in from a location off the national forest.

Forest Service officials said they don’t know the source of the water. A sump would be constructed next to each drill site to hold debris from the drilling, water and additives used in the drilling process. The sumps and the drill holes would be sealed when drilling is completed at each site. Bill Pope, owner of the Mazama Country Inn, said after the meeting that while the exploratory drilling project may be intended to lure investors, he’s concerned because “it’s a necessary first step toward an actual mine, and at some point in time the price of copper is going to be high enough so it’s going to be worth it.”

Pope has launched a new organization called Protect Flagg Mountain. The meeting also included representatives from Conservation Northwest, the Mazama Store, the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, and Methow Conservancy. The Forest Service is taking public comment on the proposed project until May 17. Comments may be sent to: District Ranger Michael Liu, Methow Valley Ranger District, 24 W. Chewuch Road, Winthrop, WA 98862; or electronically to comments-pacificnorthwest-okanogan-methowvalley@fs.fed.us. For more information, contact Laurie Dowie, special uses and minerals coordinator, at 996-4071 or email ldowie@fs.fed.us.