The majority of public water systems supplying Del Norte County come from the Smith River, the headwaters of which is being considered for a nickel strip-mining operation.
A mining company is planning to drill core samples for nickel in the watershed of Baldface Creek, shown above and below. The creek is the primary tributary of the Upper North Fork Smith River, which helps supply the majority of water for Del Norte. Courtesy of Zach Collier / Northwest Rafting Company
The potential for contamination from a mining operation weighed heavily on Del Norters who attended an informational meeting last week organized by the Smith River Alliance, which opposes the mining proposal in the headwaters of the North Fork Smith River.
As a presentation slide pointed out, “Hardrock mining is the largest source of toxic pollution in the U.S.” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I don’t mean to be an alarmist but I’m trying to be a realist,” said Grant Werschkull, co-director of Smith River Alliance.
With an audience of about 100 people, Werschkull showed satellite images of the open-pit Glenbrook Nickel mine near Riddle, Ore., (24 miles south of Roseburg) as an illustration of what could be in store for the headwaters of the North Fork Smith River.
The proposed 3,100-acre exploratory drilling site is called the Cleopatra site, named after a former mine in the area. It is located 10 miles southwest of O’Brien in Curry County, straddling the watersheds of Baldface Creek, the primary tributary for the Upper North Fork Smith, and Rough and Ready Creek, a primary tributary for the Illinois River.
Red Flat Nickel Corp., named after another current project to drill exploratory holes for nickel in the Hunter Creek and Pistol River area, has proposed flying equipment and personnel into the site by helicopter to drill 59 three-inch-diameter core samples 50 feet into the ground.
If the test drilling proves that there is enough nickel to be profitably marketed, the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest, which manages the proposed drill site, would be forced to approve the project in accordance with the 1872 Mining Law, which prioritizes mining above all other uses for public lands, Werschkull said.
Beyond reform of the archaic mining law, Werschkull said the most likely way to stop the project would be a mineral withdrawal. The federal government can withdraw specific areas from the jurisdiction of the 1872 Mining Law. Mineral withdrawal has recently been done for parts of the Chetco and Illinois rivers.
Oregon senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and Congressman Peter DeFazio, have formally asked the Obama administration to withdraw the area encompassing the Cleopatra site.
The potential for water contamination struck a chord with those at the meeting. Werschkull highlighted a 2012 review that found that 100 percent of copper mines in the U.S. experienced at least one pipeline spill or other accidental release.
Werschkull also shared findings from a 2006 study of 25 modern hardrock mines that showed that 76 percent of mines resulted in groundwater or surface water pollution.
Glenbrook Nickel, the company that operated the nickel mine near Riddle, also operated an ore loading and stock-piling facility in Coos Bay where nickel and manganese were released into the groundwater and nearby soils were contaminated with petrochemicals, according to Oregon state government environmental regulators.
While the plant was in operation through the 1990s, residents complained of sinus problems, nose bleeds, and ongoing respiratory issues.
What about the fish?
While most in attendance were concerned with the potential for a nickel mine to contaminate human water supplies, one man asked what the impacts would be to the river’s fishery.
Fisheries biologist from the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest said that steelhead are likely to be present all year in Taylor Creek, the tributary to Baldface Creek where the test drilling is proposed.
Werschkull noted that the Smith River Advisory Council, an independent group of stakeholders including state and federal agencies, industry, anglers, tribes, and water resource users, sent a letter to the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors, urging the board to write a letter of opposition to the drilling project.
The SRAC letter notes that the creation of the Smith River National Recreation Area prevents this type of mining threat here, but the Cleopatra site is in Oregon.
“Since pollution from destructive mining and mineral processing will not respect state boundaries, this type of mining is a serious threat to the Smith River in California and may have catastrophic consequences to salmon and steelhead populations, water quality and the local economy,” the SRAC letter to the Del Norte BOS states.
Supervisors considered approving a letter of opposition in February, but tabled the issue, deciding they needed more information on the project.
The board has yet to consider the issue again.
The response has been markedly different in Curry County, where the Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a letter to the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest opposing any permit for Red Flat Nickel Corp.
Nickel demand is up
When the Glenbrook Nickel mine ceased operation in 1998 it was the only nickel mine in the country.
The only current nickel mine in the United States is just starting production this fall. The Eagle Mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is expected to produce 23,000 tons of nickel and 20,000 tons of copper annually.
The ramp-up for that operation employed 600 people last fall and more than 300 jobs are expected to remain for ongoing operations.
The U.S. government sold the last of the nickel in the National Defense Stockpile in 1999.
Nickel is a crucial element for modern life. The majority of mined nickel, 65 percent, is used to manufacture the types of stainless steels that we use every day, according to the Nickel Institute, an interstational trade group for nickel producers.
“Nickel is essential for the effective operation of mobile phones,” according to the Nickel Institute, and it is also used to make super alloys for highly specialized industrial, aerospace and military applications.
As more countries desire the conveniences of the developed world, nickel demand has spiked from 1.1 million tons in 2001 to 1.57 million tons in 2011, according to the Nickel Institute.
The Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest has recently posted more information about the Cleopatra Test Drilling project, which can be found at http://1.usa.gov/PTcsky.
The public comment scoping period was expected to be held earlier this year, but that process has been put on hold as Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest officials are meeting with Smith River Rancheria and Elk Valley Rancheria representatives, who have expressed interest in the project.
Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest received more than 700 comments for the Red Flat mining project in the Hunter Creek and Pistol River watersheds.