Mount St. Helens area: Drilling plan still stalled by suit

Opponents say analysis of potential impact on environment flawed

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter




Previously: The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service in December 2012 approved a proposal by Ascot Resources to conduct exploratory drilling for minerals north of Mount St. Helens.

What’s new: After a lawsuit filed by the Gifford Pinchot Task Force, the project has now been stalled for almost a year and a half.

What’s next: A federal judge is set to hear oral arguments during a hearing in U.S. District Court in Portland on May 19.

Almost a year and a half after it was approved, a controversial mineral prospecting operation near Mount St. Helens remains stalled as opponents and the agencies who endorsed the plan continue to tangle in federal court.

The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have approved a plan by Ascot Resources to carry out exploratory drilling in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, just north of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument boundary. Both agencies granted their blessing in December 2012. The Canadian company planned to look for copper, silver, gold and other minerals by drilling 63 holes at 23 different sites north of the mountain.

That never happened.

After an unsuccessful appeal, the Gifford Pinchot Task Force filed a lawsuit in May aiming to block the drilling. The Portland-based advocacy group argues the forest service and BLM used inadequate analysis when they found the proposed drilling would have no significant environmental impact.

Opponents of the plan say that's simply not the case.

"Implementation of the project will result in degradation of fish, plant and wildlife habitat; threaten the integrity of the Green River; and impair scenic beauty and outdoor recreation in the (national forest) and adjacent lands," the task force argued in its original complaint, filed last year.

Both sides have staked their positions in court filings since then. A federal judge is set to hear oral arguments during a hearing in Portland on May 19.

"We're just kind of in a holding pattern right now," said BLM spokesman Michael Campbell.

BLM and forest service officials have said they properly followed federal law in reviewing the Ascot plan and eventually permitting it. BLM also released an environmental assessment of the project before approving it.

That's not as comprehensive as a full environmental impact statement, which opponents have called for. Federal officials have argued in court filings that Ascot's proposal didn't warrant that level of review because of its limited scope.

The permits allow for exploratory drilling only — not a full-scale mine, even if Ascot does find minerals. Officials have stressed that such a plan would require a separate public review.

Prospecting would involve drilling small holes with a diameter of 2 to 3 inches each, to a depth of about 1,000 feet, according to BLM.

In a recent statement to the court, Gifford Pinchot Task Force Conservation Director Jessica Schafer said the drilling operation is "totally incompatible" with other public uses of the site, located in the Goat Mountain area. Prospecting could bring with it tree-cutting, road building, drilling, ground clearance and waste disposal, Schafer said.

Craig Lynch, a Gifford Pinchot Task Force member, said in a statement of his own the proposal would "irreparably harm" recreational activities in the area such as hiking and hunting.