By Ann McCreary

Without additional funding, required environmental analysis of the proposed Mazama copper-drilling project won’t be completed in time for drilling to get underway this year, Methow Valley District Ranger Mike Liu said Tuesday.

“We have not exhausted funding yet, but given the workload that’s involved I can project we will run out based on the current funding level,” Liu said.

The U.S. Forest Service is conducting an environmental analysis of a proposal by a Canadian mining company to drill up to 15 exploratory holes, 980 feet deep, to assess the potential to mine copper on Forest Service land near Flagg Mountain in Mazama. 

The drilling proposal was submitted last year by Blue River Resources Ltd., headquartered in Vancouver, B.C., which wants to begin drilling as soon as it receives permission from the Forest Service.

“Their desire is definitely to get all their holes drilled this season,” Liu said.

But that may not be possible, given the volume of public comments that must be analyzed, and questions about potential impacts on groundwater that have emerged during the Forest Service’s preliminary analysis of the drilling proposal.

To adequately evaluate groundwater impacts, Liu said, the Forest Service needs to study the issue further.

“Based on current funding, we do not have enough in our minerals budget to analyze or respond to comments or concerns raised with regard to groundwater,” Liu said.

The Forest Service received 742 comments after releasing a scoping letter in April detailing the project. The public comment period ended May 31 and resulted in 602 email comments and 140 letters, Liu said.

He said comments addressed a variety of concerns including impacts on fish and wildlife; impacts on tourism, the valley’s economy and quality of life; noise and light from drilling operations that would take place 24 hours a day; traffic; and impacts on water quality.

“Probably the one concern that I would say is the most unclear to me at this point in terms of impact is the potential impact to groundwater,” Liu said.

“In my mind the uncertainty is whether there’s the potential for a 1,000-foot drill hole to somehow provide a conduit for bad water in one strata to commingle water in another strata,” he said. “The geological analysis is the most uncertain because the geologist hasn’t had a chance to determine how water would move through that system.”

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Water uncertainties

Because the proposed drilling project is a short-term mineral exploration lasting less than a year and proposes no new road construction, it qualifies as “categorically excluded” under federal law from the more detailed environmental analysis of an environmental assessment (EA) or environmental impact statement (EIS).

However, if the current environmental study finds there could be significant impacts to wildlife, natural resources, cultural or archeological sites, a more detailed environmental analysis could be required.

“Groundwater is still an unknown for me and until we know where we sit there, it’s hard to know whether we’re going to move to an EA,” Liu said. An environmental assessment would require more time and documentation to complete than an analysis under the categorical exclusion, he said.

“It would require specialists spend more time describing and writing the document,” he said.

An environmental assessment, for example, requires more detailed responses to comments, Liu said. “Under a CE [categorical exclusion] there’s less specific direction. We have more discretion about how to respond to comments,” he said.

Even without doing the more extensive analysis and documentation, Liu said, the Forest Service is unlikely to be able to complete its current study in time for drilling to begin this year, unless additional funding is allocated by the Forest Service, or provided by the mining company.

“Every year we [the Methow Ranger District] get a little bit of minerals money to help respond to mining claims. Based on their [Blue River Resources] proposal, we requested additional money” to address the project proposal, Liu said.

The public response far exceeded what was anticipated, meaning more staff time is needed to analyze and respond to comments, he said.

“We got way more comments than we would have expected for a proposal of this type,” said Liu.

The Methow Ranger District has requested additional funding for work related to the drilling project from the Northwest Regional Office in Portland, “or the mining company itself could provide funding for the shortfall. Those are two potential options that would allow us to move forward with the analysis,” Liu said.

“We have been in contact with the company to let them know our capacity and projected timeline. We’ve given them preliminary indication there may be delays based on our capacity,” he said.

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Four-month window

The area to be drilled near Flagg Mountain is known to include critical habitat for Northern spotted owls, which are protected as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

To avoid impacting the owls, the Forest Service is requiring that the drilling not begin until after Aug. 1, when the owls’ nesting season is over. The drilling would have to end Nov. 31. According to a revised plan of operations submitted in May by Blue River Resources, drilling 15 test holes would take about two months.

If the project receives Forest Service approval to move forward under the categorical exclusion designation, there is no provision for administrative appeal of the decision, which would be issued by Liu. The only recourse for citizens who object to the decision is to file a lawsuit. The EA or EIS process provides for administrative appeal.

Liu said this week that “there’s still a widespread perception that a mine is going to be developed. All we’re analyzing right now is exploratory drilling.”

The most recent Plan of Operations for the project is available on the Forest Service website: www.fs.fed.us/nepa/nepa_project_exp.php?project=44438.