St. Helens drilling OK in federal review

Public comment, another agency will address proposal

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 
photoDuring a recent visit to Ryan Lake, inside the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Jessica Walz, left, and Bob Dingenthal, both of the Gifford Pinchot Task Force, study a hillside opposite where Ascot Mining plans to do more exploratory drilling on a 217-acre mining claim. The conservation group has filed a lawsuit to require the Forest Service to study the potential environmental impacts of the mine.

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Plans for mineral exploration drilling near Mount St. Helens would pose no major impact to the environment, according to Bureau of Land Management review released Friday.

The BLM’s environmental assessment doesn’t green-light the proposal by Canada-based Ascot Resources, which hopes to prospect for copper, silver and gold in the area. Public comment on the assessment will continue through the end of July, and the U.S. Forest Service must also give its blessing before anything moves forward.

Still, the review is sure to add fuel to a controversy that stretches back to last year.

Ascot Resources holds mining rights in the area, and began drilling within its claims in 2010 before a lawsuit halted those plans last year. The Vancouver, B.C.-based company has asked for permits to conduct additional drilling — that’s the application now under review.

Ascot’s plans call for mineral exploration by drilling 63 holes from 23 sites. Each hole would be about 2 to 3 inches in diameter, according to the application.

Forest officials have stressed the proposal calls for exploratory drilling only, not a full-scale mine. Such an operation would require a separate review and application.

The drilling site sits to the northwest of Mount St. Helens in Skamania County. It’s within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, but just outside the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument boundary.

The idea has drawn plenty of push-back from opponents who fear that drilling could harm a sensitive natural area. That camp includes the Gifford Pinchot Task Force, a Portland-based advocacy group that filed last year’s lawsuit. But among the hundreds of formal comments that have piled up are also supporters who have touted landowners’ rights and economic benefits as their cause.

This week’s review characterized anticipated environmental impacts as “minor” or “negligible” in many cases. Some of the impact would come from using and reactivating old roads, and installing drill pads to carry out prospecting. The work could mean the removal of as many as 68 trees, according to the BLM assessment.

Drilling rights near Mount St. Helens go back decades, and Ascot is only the latest outfit to hold some historic claims. Exploration has occurred in the past.

A decision on the latest proposal could arrive later this year. The forest service and BLM must both approve the plan before any additional drilling takes place.

Officials reviewing the application could not be reached for comment late Friday afternoon.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.