By Don Nelson
A billion pounds of anything will get your attention.
When it’s a billion pounds of copper — and who knows how many billions of pounds of copper ore from which it would be extracted — and it’s going to come out of massive pit in your neighborhood, you’re probably more than interested.
So when a Canadian company that nobody here has heard of shows up in the Methow Valley with the intention of drilling 15 deep holes in Flagg Mountain to determine if that billion-pound bonanza of copper is feasible, questions will be raised. And there are many, hardly any of them answered or even answerable yet. There are concerns about noise pollution, air pollution, water pollution and, let’s be frank, people pollution.
To begin with, how is the project even possible? As to the exploratory drilling, the short response is that it’s not even preventable, thanks to federal mining laws that date back to the 1800s. Basically, the laws allow anyone who holds mineral rights on property such as the U.S. Forest Service land on Flagg Mountain to check it out. Not only can the Forest Service not stop it, the agency basically has to abet it.
The drilling, as proposed, would go on for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Imagine standing on the floor of the Methow Valley around Mazama, one of the quietest places on earth when night falls, and instead hearing drills whirring away while the top of Flagg Mountain is lit up like a carnival.
Beyond the issue of exploratory drilling looms the specter of actual mining. Copper mining starts at the surface and then keeps going down, typically in a widening pit. Aside from the grotesqueness of the thing — which would be fully visible from the Goat Peak fire lookout — imagine the trucks, the machinery, the workers all going up and down the narrow, unpaved access road to Goat Peak, dozens, hundreds of times a day, and then mixing it up with tourists on our only main highway.
Would it help the local economy? Hard to tell — there’s no way to predict how many jobs would be created, who would fill them or what the strain on the valley’s resources would be. Just look at North Dakota’s experience with fracking to see what can happen to “gold strike” communities when hundreds of job-seekers flood sparsely populated areas. It’s like Deadwood being recreated in the 21st century.
The more appropriate question is, how would it affect the existing economy? I think the answer is obvious and indisputable. Does anyone really believe that tourism would continue to draw as many visitors as it does now if one of the ugliest forms of mining is plopped down in the middle of this gorgeous valley, with all of its attendant side effects?
There is some local concern that the drilling/mining proposal is nothing but a scheme to boost the stock prices of its backers, who would take a profit from an active trading market and then retreat from the copper mining business. It’s happened here before.
If that’s the case, some people have told me, then newspaper stories about it only help draw attention and possibly have a role in boosting the stock price — so we are to some degree collaborators in the whole scheme. Ergo, we shouldn’t print the stories.
I reject that argument for a couple of reasons. First, it’s our job to report legitimate news of community interest. We’d look irresponsible, incompetent and fearful if we ignored such a story. Second, anyone who ventures into the stock market takes their own chances and accordingly should do their own homework.
It’s information that valley residents should be aware of — for about a billion reasons.