Update: Review mining plan near volcano, Cantwell says

By:  Eric Florip
Source: The Columbian

Citing a “host of concerns,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell on called Tuesday for an extensive environmental review of ­proposed drilling and possible mining near Mount St. Helens.

Cantwell, D-Wash., sent a letter to Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell urging a full review and public comment process. Both federal agencies are working with Ascot Resources, a Canadian company that holds mining rights just outside the Mount St. Helens National ­Volcanic ­Monument.

Ascot had planned to expand exploratory drilling it began in 2010 before a lawsuit halted the project earlier this year. The BLM and Forest Service are in the process of deciding what level of environmental review and public involvement are needed to evaluate the project. On Tuesday, Cantwell called for a full environmental impact statement — the most thorough process available.

“Given the potential risk that drilling and mining in this location would have to clean water, abundant wildlife, and the unspoiled beauty that this region is known for, I believe a full environmental impact statement is needed to properly evaluate the merits of this application,” Cantwell wrote.

Ascot officials have said the exploratory drilling would cause very little impact to the environment. But opponents argue it should be subject to a tougher review. They fear a potential mine could have far-reaching impacts to habitat and contaminate nearby waterways such as the Green River. The Gifford Pinchot Task Force, a Portland-based advocacy group, filed July’s lawsuit to halt drilling.

The plan isn’t the first mining proposal to spark controversy near Mount St. Helens. Mining claims are scattered across the area, and another high-profile application was derailed as recently as 2008.

Ascot acquired mineral ownership from General Moly Inc., then began exploratory drilling solely within its claims in 2010. Gifford Pinchot National Forest officials were notified then, and gave their blessing with a list of mitigation steps, said Chris Strebig, public affairs director with the forest. Ascot complied, he said.

Ascot planned to do more exploratory drilling this year, but wanted to include land outside its mining claims, Strebig said. That required a new application to BLM, and an environmental assessment before any prospecting permit were granted.

Strebig noted that the proposal still only calls for exploratory drilling — creating holes “about the size of a Coke can,” he said — not a full-scale mining operation. The company is still a long way from that point, and getting there would have to mean finding something worthwhile, he said.

“Exploratory drilling is just that,” he said. “There’s several steps ... if it were to ever lead to a mine.”

The area was explored by Duval Corporation in the 1970s and early 1980s, with the primary minerals of interest being copper, gold, silver and molybdenum, according to the Forest Service. Ascot has drilled looking for “gaps” in information from Duval and more recent owners, forest officials said.

The area sits in Skamania County to the northwest of Mount St. Helens, partially within the blast zone of its 1980 eruption.

The project’s time line will depend on whether federal officials decide to conduct an environmental assessment or a full impact statement, as Cantwell urged. Both options would include public comment, but the latter would be much more extensive. If a full mining operation was proposed, it would almost certainly trigger an environmental impact statement, Strebig said.