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By John Kirner and Dick Volckmann

On behalf of the Edelweiss community, we feel it is imperative that lands near Flagg Mountain which drain into the Methow Valley be withdrawn from mining exploration. Our concerns are driven by the geology of the Methow Valley and resultant surface and groundwater flow patterns in the Methow basin. It is likely that contaminants introduced anywhere in the basin will result in contamination of water at downstream withdrawal points. This becomes particularly significant if contaminants enter the basin near the head of the valley.

The Methow Valley owes its shape and geomorphology to glaciation during the last (and previous) ice age(s). As recently as 10,000 years ago, the valley was filled with a river of ice that, as it flowed southeast, deposited enormous volumes of sand and gravel at the bottom and along the sides of the valley. At places, over 1,000 feet of porous and permeable sediment fills the valley floor. This sediment, and the terraces that can be seen along the valley walls, are entirely attributable to glacial activity.

As the glacial ice slowly receded, it left behind not only the sediment, but also millions of gallons of meltwater, which to this day make up by far the major portion of the valley’s drinking water. Indeed, the water coming out of our kitchen faucets may be 10,000 years old. The geology and patterns of water movement from the headwaters of the Methow River to Pateros increase the risk that contaminants from the proposed mining project will pose significant risk to the residents of the Methow Valley. It would also increase the risk to fish and other endangered species, which could be even more sensitive to contaminants in the water system.

Open pit mining, which is most likely the type of mining considered at Flagg Mountain, is one of the most common forms of mining for strategic minerals, such as copper. This type of mining is particularly damaging to the environment because strategic minerals are often only available in small concentrations, increasing the amount of ore needed to be mined.

Toxic legacy

For commercial exploitation, copper deposits generally need to be in excess of 0.5 percent copper, and preferably over 2 percent. Within these parameters, every ton of rock mined could yield as little as only 10 pounds of copper. Open pit mining not only produces vast amounts of unsightly and toxic overburden which needs to be disposed of, but also reveals rock that has lain unexposed for millions of years. When excavated and crushed, these rocks expose sulfides, radioactive elements, asbestos-like minerals, and metallic dust. During separation, residual rock slurries, which are mixtures of pulverized rock and liquid, are produced as tailings. Toxic and radioactive elements from these liquids can penetrate both bedrock and unconsolidated material.

No matter how diligent and environmentally responsible a mining operation is, it is virtually impossible to contain all the toxins produced by the operation. Sulfide-rich dust from excavation, when mixed with rainwater or melting snow, will produce sulfuric acid, killing any organism it reaches. Water full of leached toxins, no matter how well contained, will find its way into the aquifer. Finally, one of the minerals which normally accompany copper deposits is lead. And when lead pollutes the Methow aquifer, there will be no drinkable water in the valley.— and that could be forever.

There are many environmentally damaging aspects of mining at Flagg Mountain. The natural beauty of the surrounding area would be destroyed with the development of an open pit plus mountains of toxic debris. But, the most frightening aspect would be the irreversible poisoning of the drinking water resources of the region, resulting in permanent damage to the health and economy of the Methow Valley.

 

John Kirner is president of the Edelweiss Board of Directors; Dick Volckmann is the Edelweiss general manager.