Mount St. Helens drilling foes claim victory

Judge: Review of mining firm's plan was deficient

By Eric Florip, Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter

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An environmental group fighting a proposed drilling operation near Mount St. Helens declared victory Monday after a federal judge in Oregon found earlier review and approval of the proposal to be deficient.

In a 70-page opinion issued last week, U.S. District Judge Marco A. Hernandez said a 2012 environmental analysis of the plan violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not considering all alternatives, among other problems. The judge also said a “finding of no significant impact” was not supported with the required analysis.

The plan was reviewed by the U.S. Forest Service and federal Bureau of Land Management, which approved it in 2012. Ascot Resources had hoped to carry out exploratory drilling in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, just north of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument boundary. 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.

The exploration never happened. After an unsuccessful administrative appeal, the Vancouver-based Gifford Pinchot Task Force filed a lawsuit aiming to block the drilling, citing environmental impacts and other concerns.

Last week’s court opinion sided with the plaintiff on many of its key arguments.

“The Gifford Pinchot Task Force sincerely hopes that Ascot, the BLM, and the Forest Service will now clearly realize that developing a massive mine in this area is not appropriate and that everyone can instead focus on ways to better protect this area for current and future recreational users,” Niki Terzieff, board chair of the task force, said in a released statement.

‘A strong message’

BLM officials have stressed that the permits given to Ascot allow for exploratory drilling only — not a full-scale mine. Such an operation would require a separate public review and approval, according to the agency.

The BLM is still reviewing Hernandez’s opinion, spokesman Michael Campbell said Monday. The agency will likely wait for a final judgment before deciding its next steps, he said.

The opinion directs the Gifford Pinchot Task Force to prepare an appropriate judgment, then submit it to the court for a signature.

The group made it clear Monday it believes the judge has invalidated the latest plan for drilling in the area, where mining claims go back decades.

“The court’s decision sends a strong message to the industry and federal agencies that public lands acquired for public conservation purposes cannot be used for such destructive development,” Tom Buchele, an attorney representing the plaintiff, said in a released statement.

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