RANDLE — On a brilliant fall day, with the maples and cottonwoods beginning to turn, a deep quiet settled over a remote section of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest on the northwest edge of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
South of this depressed timber town, in the Green River watershed, the legacy of the volcano’s 1980 eruption is written on the hillsides.
Within the monument’s boundary, where shattered forests have been left to recover on nature’s timetable, dead trees lie scattered like silver matchsticks across steep slopes. Outside the monument, a plantation of vigorous young conifers bristles with new growth. Where private land borders the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, a fresh clear-cut has laid a mountainside bare.
It’s hard to imagine that this remote backcountry, below Goat Mountain and just 12 miles northeast of the volcano’s crater on the fringe of the blast zone, could one day be the site of a large copper mine.
But it could happen. The 1872 Mining Law, passed during an era of western expansion, puts prospecting ahead of other activities on most of the nation’s public lands. It gives mining companies free and open access to nearly 350 million acres of public land, allowing mining companies, including those that are foreign-owned, to patent proven claims, convert subsurface rights to private ownership, and take about $1 billion annually in high-volume minerals from public land without paying a royalty.
Old mining claims are scattered across the landscape below Goat Mountain. Nearly 60 have been staked north of Mount St. Helens, most since 2004. Some are near the Green River and in national forest roadless areas. Others are near holdings mining companies acquired from the federal government long ago under the 1872 law.
Because of its long history of hard-rock mining, Congress purposely left the Goat Rock area out of the 110,000-acre National Volcanic Monument, established in 1982. The Forest Service owns the surface rights to a 217-acre mining claim in the area, but ownership of the subsurface rights is split evenly between the Forest Service and a private company, Ascot Resources of Vancouver, B.C. The Canadian company acquired the rights from the previous owner, General Moly, which hoped to develop a 3,000-acre mine to extract copper, gold, molybdenum and silver before it abandoned its plan in 2008.
The Gifford Pinchot Task Force, a Portland-based advocacy group that serves as a watchdog on the Gifford Pinchot forest, wants the Forest Service to conduct a full study of the environmental and recreational impacts of hard-rock mining at the site.
Ascot Resources drilled 14 exploratory holes on the claim last year and planned to drill 30 more from 12 drilling pads off a Forest Service road this year.
But in July, the task force filed suit against the Forest Service in U.S. District Court in Tacoma to get the agency to review the exploratory drilling under the National Environmental Policy Act, the 1969 law that requires federal agencies to prepare environmental impact studies for major projects on federal land and gather public comment.
This year’s exploratory drilling was put on hold after the lawsuit was filed.
“The company has already drilled 14 holes without a NEPA process,” said Jessica Walz, the task force’s conservation director, who led a tour of the proposed mine Tuesday. The only signs of exploratory drilling were a locked gate at the entrance to an old logging road, several berms blocking access to the spur road, and a few wooden stakes along the main Forest Service road.
Walz said it’s impossible to predict how a large hard-rock copper mine might affect the backcountry area, which is popular for fishing, hunting and horseback riding.
Based on General Moly’s 2008 claim, she fears the worst.
“It could be an open pit mine or an underground mine,” she said. “You could have subsidence of the land. We don’t know how it will affect water quality or recreation. They could close the road due to safety concerns.”
Mine drainage could occur, leaching sulfuric acid and other toxic chemicals into nearby waters, she said. If a dam was built to hold back stored waste materials, it could fail in the seismically active region and release cyanide and arsenic. Because the Green River eventually flows into the Cowlitz River, a source of drinking water in the Longview-Kelso area could be affected. And the Green is spawning habitat for protected salmon and steelhead, which could be poisoned by mine drainage
Bob Evans, director of Ascot USA, called the lawsuit frivolous.
“Ascot’s operation is a small exploration drilling program with very limited impact,” he told The Associated Press in July. In an email, he said the company has consulted with the Forest Service and “has followed best practices to leave virtually no imprint on the environment.”
Rick Kasum, operations manager for Ascot Resources, told The Columbian in April that he couldn’t believe anyone would object to mining in “a devastated area.”
“Mount St. Helens is like a bomb went off,” he added.
Ron Freeman, public services officer with the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, told the AP that the Forest Service conducted an internal review of Ascot’s exploratory drilling plan and made some suggestions but did not conduct a formal environmental review. “They have a right to mine their mineral resources,” he said.
However, the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that administers all federal subsurface mineral estates, will conduct an environmental assessment of the proposed drilling on subsurface lands owned by the Forest Service. That review will be required before the BLM will grant a prospecting permit for the publicly owned subsurface lands, said BLM spokesman Michael Campbell.
“Where it stands now is that the BLM is working with the Forest Service and Ascot to come up with the next steps for an environmental assessment,” Campbell said. The process will include a full review of the issues and a full public comment period, he said.
A prospecting permit allows a company to “go out and prove out the resource,” Campbell said. Until then, he said, any speculation about the scale of a future mining operation “is premature.”
“Before you can answer those questions, you have to go out and do the prospecting to see if there’s anything out there.”