By Ann McCreary

The Methow Ranger District is waiting for results of a preliminary analysis of potential effects to groundwater to determine whether additional studies are needed before permitting exploratory drilling for copper near Flagg Mountain in Mazama.

District Ranger Mike Liu said the assessment of groundwater impacts from the proposed drilling is expected within about two weeks.  District staff has also begun the process of analyzing 742 public comments received on the mining proposal.

The Mazama Copper Project, proposed by a Canadian-based mining company, would drill up to 15 holes, up to 980 feet deep, on U. S. Forest Service land near Flagg Mountain to determine if mineral resources found there would be worth mining.

 Because of the extensive public comments received on the proposal, the Methow Ranger District is receiving additional staff support from Forest Service minerals and geology specialists to assist in reviewing the information.

“I did push our anticipated [permitting] decision back by about a month due to the complexity of the input we received,” Liu said.

“Originally we had targeted some time in July for a decision to come out, which would allow for a potential start date of August. But based on the number of comments and the complexity, we’ve pushed it back to August,” Liu said.

Forest Service officials set Aug. 1 as the earliest the drilling could begin, because the project would take place in an area that is critical habitat for federally protected Northern spotted owls, whose nesting season extends until Aug. 1.

The drilling would have to end by Nov. 31, when Goat Creek Road, which provides access to the proposed drill sites, is closed and groomed as a snowmobile trail.

Blue River Resources approached the Forest Service last year with the intention of beginning drilling last fall. The company has been in conversation with the Forest Service over the past year regarding permitting for the project.

More study possible

The project plan calls for drilling to occur around the clock in day and night shifts and the company estimates it would take two months to complete 15 holes. 

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

However, if the preliminary groundwater study now underway finds significant potential impacts, more detailed study would be required.

“Pending the result of our groundwater analysis, I will be able to make a decision on whether or not we change to an environmental assessment,” Liu said.

Because it is a more comprehensive study, an environmental assessment would further delay the beginning of the project and could push it to next summer, after the spotted owl nesting season ends.

The Forest Service is able to issue a permit for up to 365 days, “so theoretically they could operate two seasons within a year,” but logistically that approach might be problematic, Liu said.

“More than the permitting side would be the operational efficiency side. At some point it’s not going to be worth the mobilization costs” to begin the project this year and complete it next year, Liu said.

The proposed project area around Flagg Mountain has been explored on several occasions over the past 40 years by other mining companies.  Blue River Resources, headquartered in Vancouver, B.C., acquired an option to earn a 100 percent interest in the Mazama project, according to the company website.

A drill would be moved on skids from site to site, and a sump would be dug next to each site to collect a slurry-like material produced by the drilling. Each hole and sump would be closed and sealed before moving to the next drill site, according to the project plan.

The project plan is available on the Forest Service website: www.fs.fed.us/nepa/nepa_project_exp.php?project=44438