By Ann McCreary

A decision on whether to permit exploratory drilling for copper in Mazama has been delayed by wildfires and floods that have consumed the attention and resources of Methow Valley Ranger District officials.

Ranger Michael Liu said in late June that he was waiting for the result of a groundwater analysis to determine whether additional studies would be necessary to move ahead on a request to drill exploratory holes on Forest Service land near Flagg Mountain.

Two weeks later, lightning-caused wildfires erupted and grew into the largest wildfire in Washington history, pushing the Mazama copper mining project to the back burner.

“We haven’t had time on our end to complete much other than fire suppression, suppression repair, salvage, flood damage assessment, and now BAER [Burned Area Emergency Response] work,” Liu said last week.

Blue River Resources Ltd. of Vancouver, B.C., submitted the copper exploration proposal last year. Company officials said they hoped to conduct the exploration this summer, before Forest Service roads in the Flagg Mountain area close for the winter on Nov. 31.

The proposal generated a great deal of interest and opposition from community members. The ranger district received 742 public comments regarding the proposed project last spring, and staff had begun the process of analyzing them with the hopes of completing the job by August.

Even without the wildfires and subsequent flooding that diverted Forest Service staff time and resources, analyzing the volume and complexity of comments received on the proposal was likely to exceed the district’s ability to fund the work involved, Liu said earlier this summer.

If the groundwater assessment concludes that there would be significant potential impacts from the exploratory drilling, a more detailed study would be required before a permit could be granted.

Liu said analysis of the copper project is expected to be completed by this winter or early spring. Because the area is habitat for Northern spotted owls, a protected species, the earliest that drilling could begin would be Aug. 1, 2015, after the end of the owls’ nesting season.

Blue River Resources proposes to drill up to 15 holes about 1,000 feet deep to determine if mineral resources near Flagg Mountain would be worth mining. Other companies have explored that area in the past 40 years, but none have ever proceeded beyond exploration.