- Associated Press - Monday, February 2, 2015

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) - A mining company’s plans to explore for rare metals near the North Fork Smith River just north of the Oregon-California border continue to inch forward, in the face of opposition from lawmakers and conservation interests.

Red Flat Nickel Corp. proposed two years ago to drill 59 sample holes on 139 mining claims on more than 3,000 acres, hoping to one day mine nickel and possibly cobalt, chromium and scandium.

“It’s taking longer than we expected. We have to let the process play out with the Forest Service,” said Obie Strickler, Red Flat’s consulting geologist and project manager, who first staked the claims in 2007. “It’s premature to talk about a mine. This is a very preliminary exploration into a mining project, with a number of steps. If any step doesn’t go right, it stops the project.”

The project today is no more than wood stakes marking potential drill holes, but any mine faces long odds in this area draining the headwaters of two federally recognized Wild and Scenic Rivers - the Smith and the Illinois.

The U.S. Forest Service hasn’t approved any hard rock mining on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in many years. A proposal by Walt Freeman to mine nickel along Rough and Ready Creek near Cave Junction 20 years ago never came to fruition after U.S. Forest Service analysis and a series of legal battles.

It won’t be any easier for Red Flat, an Oregon corporation with a parent company, St. Peter Port Capital, based in Great Britain.

On Wednesday California state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, introduced legislation to protect the North Fork Smith River from mining.

The North Fork Smith, a Wild and Scenic waterway rising on the south edge of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, flows south into California and enters the Middle Fork at Gasquet, Calif.

The Smith and all of its forks are prized for kayaking, rafting, and steelhead and salmon fishing. Overall, the Smith is the longest undammed river in California.

The potential mine site is located a within a mile of Baldface Creek and two miles of the North Fork Smith.

“Mining of any kind in the Smith River Watershed is simply unacceptable,” McGuire said in a news release. “I will work tirelessly to protect our river, which is one of the premier salmon fisheries in the lower 48 states and the source of drinking water for tens of thousands of residents in Del Norte County, including Crescent City.”

Strickler said he believes the project’s potential impacts, particularly the drilling portion, have been overstated.

“If I ever got to a point where I felt a company did things with the environmental process that weren’t correct, I wouldn’t work for them,” he said. “I was born and raised in this area, and I agree the Smith is beautiful. I’ve taken my family there. I like to swim in it.”

But Strickler pointed out the need for metals.

“I understand the need for this type of industry and the benefits it provides,” he said. “These metals are very important to everyone’s life. It’s just a matter of where you get them. It’s better to get them here where we have standards and regulations, than in less-regimented countries.”

Opposition has been heavy.

The Crescent City City Council and Del Norte County Board of Supervisors sent letters to oppose mining, according to the Del Norte Triplicate newspaper.

Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have asked the Obama administration to withdraw the area from new mining claims, which has already happened to the south.

All of the Smith River drainage in public ownership in California was withdrawn from mineral entry when the Smith River National Recreation Area was created in 1990.

Barbara Ullian of Grants Pass said Red Flat shouldn’t be surprised by opposition to despoiling “the watersheds of some of our last, best wild rivers and native salmon and steelhead streams.”

Ullian has spent more than two decades advocating for protection of wild rivers in the area.

“Pollution flows downstream, and according to EPA the metal mining industry is the highest toxic polluter in the United States,” she added. “So California has a huge stake in whether National Forest lands in Oregon can be grabbed by a foreign-controlled company to locate one of the dirtiest industries in the nation.”

Matt Paciorek, Wild Rivers District ranger in Cave Junction, said his agency is waiting for word from the Oregon Water Resources Department before proceeding with National Environmental Policy Act analysis.

“At this point we haven’t done any analysis on their proposal,” Paciorek said. “All we have in front of us is the proposal to do the drilling and exploration. It would be premature to guess what they want to do after that.”

In a letter dated on Friday, Red Flat’s attorneys - of the giant Pacific Northwest law firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt - told the OWRD it would withdraw its application for water, saying, “We expect the Forest Service process will take up to an additional year.”

The water application to pull up to 10 gallons per minute from a small tributary was denied in October, then Red Flat’s attorneys petitioned to have that order reconsidered.

That petition was granted, but now the company says it will wait before applying again.

In its annual report in December, Red Flat parent company St. Peter Port Capital wrote:

“The approval process has taken far longer than was anticipated. As the principal shareholder and major economic interest in the company, we have increased our direct involvement in the project to try to bring this to a speedy conclusion.”


Information from: Daily Courier, https://www.thedailycourier.com

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