By Ann McCreary
A decision on whether to permit exploratory drilling for copper near Mazama is expected by mid-July, according to U.S. Forest Service officials conducting an environmental analysis of the proposal.
The proposed drilling project has been studied by the Forest Service for more than a year, and generated about 700 written comments through letters and emails after a public comment period ended May 31, 2014, just about a year ago.
Field studies were completed last fall and a few reports by specialists are still being finished before the environmental analysis of the project is complete, said Laurie Dowie, special uses and mineral coordinator for the Methow Ranger District.
Those reports examine potential impacts on concerns such as wildlife, fisheries, groundwater, sensitive plants and cultural resources.
After the analysis is complete, a decision memo will be issued by Mike Liu, Methow Valley District ranger.
“We hope to have a decision out by mid-July,” Liu said.
The project, proposed by Blue River Resources Ltd. of Vancouver, B.C., would involve drilling up to 15 exploratory holes, up to 980 feet deep, to assess the potential to mine copper on Forest Service land near Flagg Mountain.
The proposal generated considerable interest and concern among community members after it was announced early last year by the Forest Service. A public meeting last spring drew more than 100 people.
“We’ve gone through all the letters. That was a huge job,” Dowie said. “We categorize all the comments and create an issues list. We will address those in the documents” being prepared as part of the Forest Service analysis, she said.
After a decision memo is issued, Blue River Resources would be required to undertake any mitigation measures and design criteria required by the Forest Service, and provide a bond before any work could begin, Dowie said.
Blue River Resources, which describes itself as a “mineral exploration and development company,” first approached the Forest Service in 2013 with plans for its “Mazama Copper Project.”
Blue River Resources has acquired interest in the mineral rights on the property and, under federal mining laws, has the statutory right to explore for and develop mineral resources on federal property.
The exploratory drilling is proposed as a short-term mineral exploration that will last less than a year, with no new road construction. Based on those criteria, the project qualifies as “categorically excluded” from more detailed environmental studies like an Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
Based on the environmental studies conducted for the project, Forest Service officials say they have found no reasons warranting a more detailed assessment, Liu said earlier this year.
When a project receives Forest Service approval under the categorical exclusion designation, there is no provision for administrative appeal of the decision, unlike an EA or EIS. The only recourse for citizens who object to the decision is to file a lawsuit.
The area to be drilled includes habitat for Northern spotted owls, which are protected as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Consequently, the start date for the project is limited by the owl’s nesting season. To avoid disturbing the owls during that critical time, the Forest Service is requiring that the drilling not begin until after Aug. 1, when the nesting season is over.
The drilling could only continue through the end of November, when Goat Creek Road, which provides access to the proposed drill sites, is closed and groomed as a snowmobile trail.
Once work begins on the drilling project, it must be completed within one calendar year, based on the rules of categorically exempt projects, Dowie said. She said it is not known whether Blue River Resources would begin work this summer.
The Mazama Copper Project analysis was pushed to the back burner last summer when Methow Valley Ranger District staff had to turn their attention to dealing with the Carlton Complex Fire. The process was also slowed by lack of funding to pay staff to complete the volume of work involved, Liu said.
Blue River Resources officials had hoped that the environmental studies would be completed last summer, according to Forest Service officials.
Liu said the Methow Ranger District has received some additional Forest Service funding for the analysis, as well as “voluntary funding from the company for the shortfall between our estimated analysis cost and the Forest Service funding we received.”
The Forest Service has not responded to a request from the Methow Valley News about the amount of money contributed by Blue River Resources to complete the analysis.
Liu said cost-sharing agreements with companies interested in expediting the permit process with the Forest Service are not uncommon.
Blue River Resources’ project plans say the drilling would take place over about two months and would be conducted by two crews working day and night shifts. Drilling would be done with a “Hydrocore 200” diamond drill mounted on skids. The drill would be transported to and from the area on a trailer towed by a truck.
Drill sites would be located next to Forest Service roads to minimize ground disturbance. Some temporary roads that are currently blocked or overgrown would be opened to access drill sties, then closed and decommissioned when the drilling is completed, according to project plans.
Sumps would be constructed at each drill site to hold debris from the drilling, along with water and drilling additives. Water used in the drilling process would be trucked in from a location off the national forest, according to the plans.
The proposed area to be evaluated for potential copper mining has been explored by several other mining companies over the past 40 years.
The plan of operations for the project is available on the Forest Service website at www.fs.fed.us/nepa/nepa_project_exp.php?project=44438.