Within a week, a Canadian company will begin exploratory drilling north of Mount St. Helens, a step that could revive a controversial proposal for mining near the volcano.
It's a move a Portland environmental group said was hidden from public comment to avoid more controversy. U.S. Forest Service officials said Tuesday, however, that the company has the right to conduct such tests on its own mine claim.
"These folks have private mineral rights and they're exercising their private mineral rights," Ron Freeman, public services staff officer with the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, said Tuesday.
The Forest Service regulates surface activity in the area, but mining activity, if it ever takes place, would be regulated by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Ascot Resources of Vancouver, British Columbia, plans to drill 14 holes between 1,500 and 2,000 feet deep to confirm tests done in the area in the 1970s. The previous tests included 100 drill holes and showed high levels of copper, gold, silver and molybdenum.
"Mining would be quite a long way off," said Robert Evans, Ascot's chief financial officer. "This is preliminary drilling to try and confirm the numbers that were put out before."
Previous plans by General Moly, an Idaho mining company, to mine on the site 12 miles north of the crater met fierce public opposition. More than 30,000 comments were sent to the BLM opposing General Moly's mining lease application. Half the mineral rights are owned privately, the other half are owned by the BLM, so a federal lease is crucial for any mining to proceed.
The BLM denied the lease application in 2008 and the General Moly dropped its plans. Ascot has since obtained an option to buy General Moly's claims.
The potential mine site is nearly 900 acres in the Green River Valley near Goat Mountain, just outside the northern boundary of the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
Evans said it's too early to discuss what type of mine - such as open pit or underground - might be developed. Officials don't even know if they'll want to mine the area yet, he said.
The Gifford Pinchot Task Force was a leading opponent of the previous mining plans and the group also is opposed to Ascot's exploratory drilling. The environmental group's conservation director said public comment should been taken before any more drilling was allowed.
"It's frustrating," said Jessica Walz. "We feel like the Forest Service knows how controversial this project is. ... And it feels like they're trying to skirt public opinion, and that's just not right."
General Moly's proposed mine was opposed by environmental groups, the city councils of Castle Rock, Kelso and Longview and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Opponents said mining threatened recreation in the area as well as the water systems of nearby towns. The Green River is part of the Cowlitz River basin, from which Castle Rock, Kelso and Longview draw their water.
"It wasn't right for the area then, and it's not right now," Walz said of the mining proposal. She added the Task Force considered suing to block the exploratory drilling but determined the work likely would be done before it could get a court date.
Earlier this summer, Forest Service officials said Ascot would need federal approval to drill and that public comment likely would be solicited. Officials later discovered, though, that the company did not need permission for the tests and therefore there is no mechanism for public comment, Freeman said.
The Forest Service instead issued a "letter of concurrence", stating it had worked with Ascot to ensure the area is protected during the planned drilling, he said.
Access for any drilling would be over abandoned roads used in the 1970s, so there would be minimum disruption to conduct the tests, Freeman said.
Ascot hopes to have the drilling completed by the end of October. If the initial tests are favorable, the next step would be more drilling in more concentrated areas, Evans said.
"You do more drilling and try to get more and more confirmation until you're confident of what's actually underground," he said.