A Canadian mining company plans to resume exploratory drilling just outside the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument next year, and its tests so far indicate it may have found one of state's richest mineral deposits there, company officials said Wednesday.

"What we have found so far leads us to believe the deposit may be one of the most substantial copper, gold, silver, and molybdenum resources ever discovered in Washington State," said Robert Evans, chief financial officer for Vancouver, British Columbia-based Ascot Resources Ltd.

Such talk is making environmental groups nervous because it sounds even more likely that Ascot will seek to develop a mine, which they fear would be an unsightly open pit that pollutes the Cowlitz River watershed, mars views of the volcano's blast area and ruin recreational opportunities in the area.

Last year, Ascot drilled 11 test holes in the area of Goat Mountain and plans more next year in an attempt to determine the size of the mineral deposit. Company officials emphasize they have not decided yet whether to move forward with the controversial mine. Evans said it could take two years to prove whether it pays to develop the mine.

Representatives from the Gifford Pinchot Task Force environmental group, which led a press tour of the area Tuesday, oppose the project. The proposed mined is in the upper Green River watershed on land that was stripped out of the 110,000-acre volcanic monument at the 11th hour when Congress created the preservation area in August 1982. Congress didn't want to buy out mining rights.

"It's a place that is important enough to be considered a national monument," said Bob Dingethal, executive director of the nonprofit organization charged with protecting the national forest. "This isn't a place where mining should be considered."

Jessica Walz, conservation director for the Task Force, said any mine would most likely shut off access to Ryan Lake and Goat Mountain Horse Camp. Both Walz and Dingethal say there's a strong likelihood Ascot will try to develop a mine considering that it has already spent $2 million on exploration in the area and plans to spend another $3 million next year.

Details about the size and scope of the mine, or whether it would be an underground or open air mine, will await completion of exploratory drilling, according to Ascot. Evans, though, estimated a mine could create 2,000 direct jobs and another 4,000 indirect jobs.

A previous mining company planned on developing a 900-acre site in the same area. But General Moly's project was shelved after the U.S. Bureau of Land Management denied its lease application in 2008 after the agency received 30,000 comments about the proposal, many of them opposing it. The opposition included the city councils of Castle Rock, Kelso and Longview and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. The cities draw their water out of the Cowlitz River, which is fed partly by the Green River.

Walz said the public has not been given the opportunity to comment on the upcoming drilling.

Fifty percent of the area's mining rights are privately owned, the other half are owned by the BLM, insuring that mining can't occur without a federal lease. However, Ascot does not need permission to test drill, and there is no requirement for public participation at this stage.

U.S. Forest Service officials say the company has been a good steward of the environment throughout the drilling process.

"They're required to rehabilitate the site after they're done," said Forest Services spokesman Ken Sandusky. "There's a long history of this activity in the area. The boundaries in Congress were laid out to allow for this kind of activity."

The Duval Corp. first discovered a mineral deposit in 1969 and tried to explore its size, value and how to extract the material. The company sold its rights to the site in 1984. The area is called the Mount Margaret deposit because it is north of that noted landmark. Mount Margaret, which took a direct hit from Mount St. Helens' blast on May 18, 1980, is well outside the footprint of any mining area, however.

Ascot officials say they have worked closely with the BLM and Forest Service to make sure they don't leave a lasting impact on the area through drilling.

"If we move forward with a mine plan in the future we will be required to go through the stringent review process with local, state, and federal agencies to ensure the mine is operated in an environmentally safe and sound manner," Evans said.

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