Nickel Strip Mines Proposed for Curry County

There have been rumors for a long time for renewed nickel mining exploration at Red Flat in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, about eight miles east of Gold Beach, in the North Fork Pistol River and Hunter Creek watersheds, as well as further south at Baldface Creek in the North Fork Smith watershed. Now these rumors have come to pass. Red Flat Nickel Corporation (RFNC), which holds thousands of acres of mining claims in these areas, has begun activities that would eventually lead to one or more major strip mines in these biologically diverse and fragile landscapes.

Test Drilling for Nickel
The company requested permission of the Forest Service to drill 35 holes at Red Flat (the RF-38 proposal) to obtain core samples, in order to test them for nickel. The Forest Service issued a preliminary decision to allow the test drilling at the RF-38 locations, but in July 2014 issued a letter to the company saying the agency had underestimated the time necessary to reach a final decision on the project, given more than 600 public comments and the many issues raised to which the agency would have to respond. The Forest Service said they would be unable to complete their decision-making until at least November 2014. As of the end of 2014, there was been no further activity by the Forest Service on this application.

Red Flat Nickel also proposes to test drill at 59 sites on National Forest land near the southeastern tip of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area. This is the so-called Cleopatra plan, in the Baldface Creek area of the North Fork Smith watershed. This proposal has not yet been subject to any public comment, but Red Flat Nickel Corporation submitted the required Plan of Operations (see below). In June 2014, the Forest Service notified the company that the Forest Service would not be analyzing the Cleopatra test drilling plan until Fall of 2014 at the earliest because of insufficient staffing and other priorities. Again, as of the end of 2014, the Forest Service has not acted on the request.

However in June 2014, RFNC applied to the Oregon Water Resources Dept. for a so called “limited license” for water, to be used for the Cleopatra test drilling project between 2014 and 2018. The company hoped to draw water from an unnamed tributary of Taylor Creek, which is a tributary of the North Fork Smith River that flows from Oregon into California. The public opposition was enormous: WRD received more than 3,000 public comments, including detailed letters from three California state agencies and two towns (Gasquet and Crescent City) that use Smith River water as their municipal water supply. California agencies pointed out that the state has declared the Smith “fully appropriated,” as of 1998 for water rights, because the Smith is an irreplaceable salmon river. Furthermore, as many commentators noted, there is no interstate water compact between Oregon and California allowing the states to collaborate on the water needs of one state from a river originating in the other. This leaves California users (there have not been any water users in Oregon thus far) completely vulnerable to the proposed strip mining in the Smith River watershed. The Water Resources Dept. denied the limited license application in September 2014. The company then filed a Petition for Reconsideration, which is ongoing at this time.

Test drilling does not sound like a major problem, in fact it sounds quite harmless. But the purpose of test drilling is small-scale sampling, then moving to small-scale production for bulk testing purposes, and then launching into large-scale development of one or more nickel strip mines, deep in National Forest lands in an area of very high biological diversity. Nickel strip mines can be hundreds of acres in size, not including slag heaps, roads, equipment pads and other infrastructure. There have been occasional exploration activities for nickel in the Red Flat area since the 1970s at least, leading to abandoned trenches and unauthorized roads. The mining proposals never pencilled out economically, and all attempts thus far have been failures. This area is highly prized for its biological diversity: nearby are the 53-acre Red Flat Botanical Area (in which three of the RF-38 drill test holes would be bored), 520-acre Hunter Creek Bog Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), and 1,920 acre North Fork Hunter Creek ACEC.

The Curry County Board of Commissioners came out in complete opposition to proposed nickel mining in these areas. Their December 12, 2013 letter to the Forest Service says, “This letter is the Curry County BOC formal opposition of any permit issued to Red Flat Nickel Corporation.” ORCA supports Curry County in this far-sighted decision to protect the County’s sustainable economy.

Environmental Concerns
Oregon Coast Alliance and a host of other organizations oppose even test drilling for nickel at Red Flat or Cleaopatra, and any nickel strip mining in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. For one thing, even test drilling creates issues of proper containment, disposal and removal of mine waste, but Red Flat in its Plan of Operations made only vague assertions about cleanup. Worse, the company has no plan for dealing with groundwater contaminated by mine waste, other than to let it flow haphazardly across the land if it reaches the surface. What groundwater impacts will there be as a result of this test drilling? Second, the Forest Service provided no analysis of the operations in its Preliminary Decision, merely parroting Red Flat’s application materials. There must be an Environmental Assessment for the test drilling, because of the unique ecological conditions of the area, and because of the cumulative impacts. For example, abandoned mining roads bulldozed in decades ago have become unauthorized off-road vehicle roads, and previous mining activity has never been cleaned up, leaving its contaminated waste behind. Third: the Forest Service decision memo has no Reclamation Plan as required by law, but merely summarizes the company’s proposed measures. Reclamation requirements in such a sensitive area must be much more specifically laid out.

What Would a Nickel Mine Be Like?
What would a nickel strip mine look like? Ridgetops and hillsides are stripped of vegetation, soil and rock to get the nickel ore; the waste rock left behind is about 95% of the earth moved. Streams in sensitive upper watersheds would be destroyed, as well as entire landscapes in a remote area. Many additional acres are crisscrossed by the necessary roads. Hard rock strip mines have a very bad reputation when it comes to reclamation; much more common is for the company to mine, and then declare bankruptcy and leave the mess behind. The only other nickel mine in the US was also in Oregon: the Glenbrook Mine in Riddle, which ceased mining in about 1993 after forty years of activity. The mine itself was about 375 acres in size, but there are also 39,000 cubic yards of contaminated material at the site. The onsite smelter closed in 1998, leaving huge slag stockpiles and holding ponds. In 1997, Glenbrook Nickel was the third largest toxic polluter in Oregon, according to EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory.

ORCA is watching the potential development of nickel mines in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest closely. Since Red Flat Nickel is a subsidiary of St. Peter’s Port Capital, a multinational corporation registered in Panama and headquartered in Isle of Guernsey, England, it is by no stretch of the imagination an Oregon, or even American, corporation. Unfortunately, the 1872 Mining Law as interpreted allows this kind of loophole for exploitation of mineral resources. However, many other environmental protection laws apply to mining, and compliance with these often makes the difference in whether a mining scheme would be profitable or not.

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