Mining company asks to drill near Mount St. Helens

Firm proposes to explore outside monument limits

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 

Public meeting

What: Discussion of proposed drilling near Mount St. Helens

When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 13

Where: Rock Creek Hegewald Center, 710 Rock Creek Drive, Stevenson

More info: blm.gov/or/programs/minerals/prospecting

As a proposed drilling plan near Mount St. Helens works its way through federal review, new voices enter the fray and officials know they’re being watched closely.

Hundreds of people packed a pair of public meetings in Longview and Morton last month. A third open house is planned for March 13 in Stevenson. More than 200 formal comments have piled up, according to the Bureau of Land Management, most arriving before the current environmental scoping process kicked off.

But that level of interest from both supporters and opponents of the idea hasn’t surprised the BLM or Gifford Pinchot National Forest officials, who manage the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

“Mount St. Helens is an international icon. This is outside the (monument) boundary, but it’s in the vicinity,” said Chris Strebig, a forest service spokesman. “That draws attention.”

The controversy stems from plans by Ascot Resources to expand exploratory drilling northwest of Mount St. Helens in Skamania County. The Canadian company, which holds mining rights in the region, began drilling within its claims in 2010 before a lawsuit halted those plans last year. Ascot also has applied for a permit to conduct exploratory drilling beyond its claims that’s the application now under review.

The proposal has drawn strong push-back from opponents who fear the environmental impacts of possible drilling and mining in a sensitive natural area. That group includes the Gifford Pinchot Task Force, a Portland advocacy group that filed last year’s lawsuit.

Other voices, including the Battle Ground-based American Land Rights Association, have recently come out to defend Ascot’s plans, saying jobs may result.

“We’re interested in supporting economic development in the local communities” while also protecting existing uses like hunting and fishing, said Chuck Cushman, the association’s executive director.

Strebig stressed that Ascot’s application calls for exploratory drilling only, not a full-scale mine. The plans call for mineral exploration at 23 sites by drilling 63 holes each with a diameter of about 2 or 3 inches using portable equipment, according to the forest service.

Much of the work would happen on former roads and drill pads used by previous companies that held land patents as far back as the 1980s. The area has been explored in the past for copper, silver and gold, among other minerals.

BLM will evaluate the application in the coming months, and hopes to make its recommendation by June 1, said agency spokesman Michael Campbell. The forest service must also give a consent decision. If both agencies sign off on the plan, drilling could begin as soon as September but only if no appeals are filed.

BLM is treating Ascot’s plan the same as any other prospecting permit application, Campbell said. If the company decides to later pursue a full mine, he said, that would trigger a new public process and likely a much more thorough environmental review.

“This is the first,” Campbell said, “of many steps to come.”

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