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News / Clark County News

Green River declared endangered

Group says it’s among nation’s most vulnerable due to proposed mining

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 13, 2017, 8:41pm

For the second time, a national rivers conservation organization has declared Southwest Washington’s Green River as one of the nation’s most endangered waterways due to proposed mining near its headwaters near Mount St. Helens.

“We’re talking about an industry that has been documented as the most polluting in the nation,” said David Moryc, a senior director with American Rivers. “When you’re thinking of siting a mine, place matters.”

American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, calls the Green the sixth most endangered river in the U.S. because of a mining company’s plans to search for precious metals near the river’s headwaters at Goat Mountain, just north of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument boundary. The organization also called the river endangered in 2011.

In its report, the organization urges the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to deny the exploratory drilling permits and to protect the area from future mine proposals.

The Green River is a state-designated gene bank for wild winter steelhead, meaning hatchery fish are excluded from it, and it’s a candidate for a federal Wild and Scenic River designation. The land where the drilling would occur was purchased by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1980s with money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is meant to serve the interests of recreation and conservation.

Ascot Resources Ltd. of Vancouver, B.C., wants to search for copper, gold and molybdenum by drilling 63 exploratory wells at 23 different sites in about 900 acres in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The site is roughly 12 miles north of Mount St. Helens’ crater. Ascot owns 50 percent of the subsurface mineral rights. The other half and the surface lands belong to the public.

The BLM has authority to grant permits, but the Forest Service must consent to the project since it would be on national forest lands.

Ascot has never explained what kind of mine it might pursue if the samples prove viable. But American Rivers believes it would have to be an open pit mine in order for the operation to be economically feasible.

“This type of mining exposes the rock beneath the surface to air and water, creating conditions that can lead to the formation of sulfuric acid,” American Rivers wrote in a report on the Green River. “Acid mine drainage is very harmful to fish and other aquatic organisms, and can continue to occur long after mining has ended.”

Robert Evans, chief financial officer and director of Ascot Resources, said the Green River isn’t endangered by his company’s activity and brushed off the American Rivers report, calling it “sensationalist” and “seek(ing) to scare and mislead people.”

“Ascot’s project is a minor exploration project of 63 Coke-can-size drill holes that will have zero impact on the river,” he said.

In 2010 Ascot drilled 11 such holes in the area while it considered buying the mineral interests from its previous owner.

But BLM spokesman Michael Campbell said the company didn’t build anything, worked on existing roads and was only active on the private half of one lot.

If Ascot’s permit is approved and the site is worthy of mining, the company would have to undergo a separate permitting process.

“If our exploration shows a significant mineral resource, then there will be discussions about how the project can proceed, and Ascot will have to apply for a new level of permits. Until then, it is premature to speculate,” Evans said.

Moryc called the impacts of test drilling a red herring.

“The real question is whether we should even consider mining on public lands purchased for recreation and conservation on the flanks of iconic Mount St. Helens and in a watershed that supplies drinking water for downstream communities,” he said.

The Green River is the largest tributary of the North Fork of the Toutle River, which flows into the Cowlitz River. The roughly 13,000 residents of Kelso and Castle Rock get their water from the Cowlitz.

In March of last year, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., wrote in opposition to the project in a letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, arguing that mining activity would likely interfere with recreation and conservation on the land, which were the reasons behind the purchase.

Prior to sending the letter, Cantwell questioned Tidwell about the project in person during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, questioning how exploratory drilling and conservation lands can co-exist.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has also lobbied against the project.

Columbian staff writer