(Marsha Matta/The Columbian)
The U.S. Forest Service on Tuesday authorized controversial mineral prospecting near Mount St. Helens, giving a key endorsement to a Canadian company hoping to drill there.
That doesn't greenlight the project just yet. The Bureau of Land Management, which holds final say, could make its decision as soon as next week, said spokesman Michael Campbell. But an earlier BLM assessment appeared to agree with the forest service, finding that exploratory drilling in the Goat Mountain area of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest would pose no major impact to the environment.
Canada-based Ascot Resources aims to drill for copper, silver and gold, fueling a controversy that stretches back to last year. The company holds mining rights in the area, and began drilling within its claims in 2010 before a lawsuit halted those plans last year. Ascot has also asked for permits to conduct additional drilling -- that's the application now under review.
In granting its approval, the forest service determined the drilling wouldn't threaten the resources of Gifford Pinchot lands, said Cowlitz Valley district ranger Gar Abbas. The project would involve low-impact exploratory drilling only, he said, not the full-scale mining operation that some fear could follow.
Ascot's plans call for mineral exploration by drilling 63 holes at 23 sites. Each hole would be about 2 to 3 inches in diameter, according to the application, to a depth of around 1,000 feet.
"This is definitely not about whether there's going to be a mine of any kind," Abbas said. "That's a whole different review process."
Opponents have argued even exploratory drilling could cause significant ecological harm to a sensitive natural area just north of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument boundary. That includes damage to water resources, particularly near the Green River, according to comments submitted this year.
The proposal under consideration also could disrupt recreation by creating access and noise issues, said Jessica Schafer, conservation director with the Gifford Pinchot Task Force, a Portland-based advocacy group.
"We do think there are clear environmental impacts with drilling," Schafer said.
The forest service's blessing gives BLM officials the last piece of the puzzle to make their final decision, Campbell said. As the lead agency on the application process, the BLM has received close to 6,000 total comments on the drilling proposal, he said.
The BLM's final decision could open the door for drilling to start as soon as next year. But it also allows the appeal process to begin.
The Forest Service's Finding of No Significant Impact was not immediately available Tuesday. Having not seen the document, Schafer couldn't say exactly what the Gifford Pinchot Task Force's response would be. But the organization doesn't plan to stay on the sidelines, she said.
"We do intend to actively continue working on this," Schafer said. "We don't intend to keep quiet."