By Ann McCreary

The Canadian mining company that plans exploratory drilling for copper on U.S. Forest Service land in Mazama said it expects to receive the required permit in the first quarter of 2015, a prediction that is “overly optimistic,” according to a Forest Service official.

A news release issued last week by Blue River Resources Ltd., based in Vancouver, B.C., said field work has been completed by the Forest Service, which would issue the permit for the drilling, and the company expects to receive a permit to drill test holes near Flagg Mountain early next year.

The Forest Service has said that drilling would not be permitted prior to Aug. 1, to avoid potentially impacting the nesting season of northern spotted owls that live in the area and are protected under federal law as a threatened species.

The permit process got underway last spring, but was delayed significantly as a result of the Carlton Complex Fire, which required the Methow Valley Ranger District to divert resources from regular agency work, said Mike Liu, Methow district ranger. The Methow district is in charge of conducting the permitting process for the proposed drilling.

Field studies were completed this fall, said Laurie Dowie, special uses and minerals coordinator for the Methow Valley Ranger District.

“We believe we’ve done enough field work to begin the rest of the project,” she said. That includes “specialist reports” on the potential impact of the proposed drilling on issues of concern including wildlife, fisheries, groundwater, sensitive plants and cultural resources, Dowie said.

The Forest Service must also analyze and respond to about 750 comments received in the spring during the public comment period on the proposed exploratory drilling.

“We have to look at each letter and identify the issues,” Dowie said. She said the company’s announcement that it expects to receive a permit in the first quarter of 2015 is “very optimistic — overly optimistic.”

Blue River Resources first approached the Forest Service in 2013 with plans for its “Mazama Copper Project” and the Forest Service began its analysis of the proposed minerals exploration in spring of 2014.

The proposal conjured up images of open pit mining in Mazama and generated a large amount of citizen interest, drawing more than 100 people to an informational meeting hosted by the Forest Service last spring.

The project involves drilling as many as 15 holes, up to 980 feet deep, to determine if mineral resources found there would be worth mining. According to plans submitted by Blue River Resources, the drilling would take about two months and would be conducted by two crews working day and night shifts.

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

Liu said last week that it appears likely the project can move forward under the categorical exclusion designation.

“Skimming through preliminary reports, I didn’t see anything that suggests environmental effects warranting a more detailed environmental assessment,” Liu said.

The categorical exclusion process requires less extensive and less detailed environmental analysis and provides more discretion to the Forest Service in how to respond to public comments.

“Our response to comments and how we address them will be available to the public,” Liu said.

If a project receives Forest Service approval 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.

Under longstanding federal mining laws, the Forest Service does not have the authority to deny mineral claims holders the right to explore for and develop mineral resources on federal lands, but can set requirements to mitigate potential environmental impacts.

Liu said he doesn’t know yet whether the ranger district’s budget will include adequate funding for staff time needed to complete the work for the permit. However, he added, “it’s my understand that the company [Blue River Resources] is interested, if we don’t have adequate funding internally, in finding a way to help fund that.”

Cost-sharing agreements with companies interested in expediting the permit process from the Forest Service are not uncommon, Liu said.

Dowie said the intent of the district is to issue a permit prior to Aug. 1, when the company would be allowed to begin work.  The drilling would have to end Nov. 31, when Goat Creek Road, which provides access to the proposed drill sites, is closed and groomed as a snowmobile trail.

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 said the drill program on the company’s “100 percent owned Mazama Copper Deposit … is to confirm and expand the historic copper mineralization located within the Mazama Copper Deposit.”

The Mazama copper deposit, according to Blue River Resources, is situated  “on the southern extension of the Quesnel Trough copper belt, one of the most prolific copper producing areas in North America.”

The company’s press release concluded by stating that under rules of the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, “All statements, other than statements of fact, included in this release, including, without limitation, statements regarding potential future plans and objectives of the Company, are forward-looking statements that involve risks and uncertainties.

“There can be no assurance that such statements will prove to be accurate and actual results and future events could differ materially from those anticipated in such statements.”