Group seeks to block drilling near Mount St. Helens

Drinking water, habitat fears raised; firm defends plan

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SEATTLE — Environmentalists are seeking to stop exploratory drilling on forest lands near Mount St. Helens in Washington state as a Canadian company prepares next month to drill more holes to probe for copper, gold and other minerals.

Ascot Resources, of Vancouver, B.C., plans to drill on a site within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Skamania County, where it owns mineral rights. The site is about 12 miles northeast of the volcanic crater and partly within the blast zone of the 1980 eruption that killed 57 people.

The environmental group Gifford Pinchot Task Force sued in federal court in Tacoma last week to get the U.S. Forest Service to conduct environmental reviews and allow for public comments. It claimed the project could lead to polluted drinking water and loss of wildlife habitat, and interfere with hunting, fishing, backcountry and other recreational uses that draw thousands of visitors to the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument each year.

“It’s an important public issue, and I think the public deserves the opportunity to comment on it,” said Jessica Walz, conservation director for the Portland-based Gifford Pinchot Task Force, whose opposition to a proposed copper mine in the same area helped derail the project in 2008.

Bob Evans, director of Ascot USA, on Tuesday called the lawsuit frivolous.

“Ascot’s operation is a small exploration drill program with very limited impact,” he wrote in an emailed response. “Ascot, in consultation with the USFS, has followed best practices to leave virtually no imprint on the environment.”

The Forest Service owns the surface rights to the land, but the subsurface mineral rights are split in half between the federal government and Ascot. The company acquired a 50 percent private mineral interest in about 220 acres last year from General Moly, formerly Idaho General Mines.

Ascot began exploratory drilling in the area in 2010. The results were encouraging enough for the company to continue exploring again this year, Evans said.

In August, it plans to drill 30 holes from 12 drilling pads for about 40,000 feet. Some of those will duplicate holes that were dug decades ago to confirm whether the historic data is reliable, Evans said.

The company has also applied to the Bureau of Land Management for a prospecting permit on land adjacent to the area, Evans said.

BLM spokesman Michael Campbell said his agency is conducting an environmental review this fall on that prospecting permit. “There are many steps that would need to take place before they begin mining, including environmental assessments,” Campbell said.

Ron Freeman, public services officer with the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, declined to comment on the environmental group’s lawsuit.

“We did not formally do an environmental review, but we did it internally,” Freeman said, referring to the exploratory drilling this year. “We did not feel it was necessary because of the private issue. They have a right to mine their mineral resources.”

Freeman said the forest service reviewed the company’s operating plan and negotiated certain operating conditions. For example, the company must truck in its own water for drilling operations, avoid certain protected forest lands and use basins to catch drilling slurry in some instances.

Opponents say the exploratory drilling will open the door to mine development. A copper mine located at the edge of the national monument and in a seismically active region could pose serious risks, such as potentially polluting the drinking water supplies of nearby communities, Walz said.

The area around Mount St. Helens has been periodically explored for copper, gold, silver and other minerals for over a century.

The land northeast of the volcano was last explored in the late 1970s and early 1980s by Duval Corporation. When Pennzoil acquired Duval in 1984, it divested its hard-rock mineral holdings and its lands.

The federal government acquired ownership of some of those lands from The Trust for Public Lands in 1986, but 50 percent of the subsurface mineral rights remained privately held.

Walz said the land transferred from The Trust for Public Lands was intended to help preserve the Green River and the scenic beauty of the monument.

Freeman said the conditions of the acquisition did not preclude mining.

In 2008, the Bureau of Land Management denied a lease application from General Moly encompassing nearly 900 acres north of the volcano.

“Ascot is doing exploratory drilling to make a better proposal of what’s there, if it’s economical to mine and how they will go about that if it is economical,” Freeman said.