Public has 2 weeks to weigh in on strip mining in watershed
A mining company is planning to drill core samples for nickel in the watershed of Baldface Creek, shown here. The creek is one of the primary tributaries of the North Fork Smith River, which helps supply the vast majority of water for Del Norte County. Courtesy of Zach Collier / Northwest Rafting Company
The Oregon Water Resources Department is accepting public comment until July 8 on an application to use surface water for exploratory drilling in the North Fork Smith River watershed with the intent of operating a strip mine for nickel and other metals.
The North Fork Smith is one of the three main tributaries of the Smith River system providing the vast majority of drinking water for Del Norte County, including Crescent City’s municipal water system, which drew 745 million gallons from the Smith River in 2013.
“We obviously have an interest in the (mining proposal) because it could have the potential to affect the Smith River watershed,” said Eric Wier, the Crescent City public works director.
Wier said that city staff is in the process of researching the water use application and if they decide it’s prudent he will bring a comment letter to the Crescent City Council’s July 7 meeting, just in time for the July 8 public comment deadline.
The application to divert up to 10 gallons per minute from an unnamed tributary in Oregon’s chunk of the North Fork Smith drainage was submitted earlier this month by Red Flat Nickel Corp., a company created for this mining project as well as another in the “Red Flat” area of Hunter Creek and Pistol River watersheds just south of Gold Beach.
The company is applying for a five-year limited license to divert water for exploratory drilling using a pump powered by a small diesel generator that the company said will be “located a safe distance from the active tributary system. Any spill of fuel or lubricant would occur at distance from watercourse, and could be cleaned up without risk to surface waters.”
In its plans submitted to Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest, Red Flat Nickel Corp. has proposed flying equipment and personnel into the mining site by helicopter to drill 59 3-inch-diameter core samples 50 feet into the ground. The Cleopatra mining site is 3,980 acres of federal mining claims lying just north of the California border and just east of the National and Wild Scenic River corridor of the North Fork Smith, where mining is already prohibited. The claims are owned by St. Peter Port Capital, a foreign investment company based in the United Kingdom. Environmental analysis from the forest service is expected to be released this summer.
Although the mining proposal has prompted opposition from various groups, representatives of the company insist the operation can be done in an evironmentally safe way.
John Magliana, an attorney representing Red Flat Nickel, told the Medford Mail Tribune that “My client is very sensitive to the environment and the attitude of Oregonians.”
Although the two-week public comment period that opened Tuesday seems remarkably short, officials from the Oregon Water Resources Department said that is the standard time frame prescribed by Oregon Administrative Rules.
Crossing state lines
A nickel mining proposal by Cal-Nickel in the 1980s inspired the creation of the Smith River National Recreational Area by Congress in 1990, preventing all mining claims on federal lands in the watershed in California, but the current mining site in question lies in Oregon.
Gordon Lyford, a retired professional engineer of O’Brien who worked on water rights and irrigation issues for the U.S. Department of the Interior for more than 30 years, has already submitted comments that highlight issues with the water use application.
“There is no conceivable reason to approve the use of our public waters for mineral exploration drilling that would enable a strip mine that is clearly detrimental to the interests of so many American citizens,” Lyford’s comment letter states. His letter calls into question whether Oregon even has the right to appropriate any water in the Smith River watershed since the California Water Resources Control Board “declared the Smith River system to be fully appropriated year round.”
“The really odd thing that I discovered is that you have water flowing out of Oregon into California without any compact or agreement,” Lyford told the Triplicate, adding that the only North Fork Smith water rights in writing are on the California side.
Lyford’s experience with interstate water rights is extensive. He even drew the map that was eventually approved by Congress to appropriate the use of the Truckee and Carson rivers across the California-Nevada state line.
“How can Oregon potentially pollute the headwaters of streams that people rely on without any agreement?” Lyford said.
Another opposition letter to the Oregon Water Resources Department was sent by a consortium of 18 environmental conservation groups, including local groups: the Smith River Alliance and Friends of Del Norte.
“These are some of the purest waters in the West, with outstanding runs of wild salmon and steelhead and cutthroat trout,” the letter states. “Large-scale surface mining would drastically alter them forever.”
The conservation groups highlight the Smith River’s status as California’s only major river that is completely undammed from its headwaters to the ocean, calling it California’s “sacred river.”
The tributaries within the mining claim, including the stream where water would be drawn, have all been declared by the Forest Service to be eligible as National Wild and Scenic Rivers, the letter highlights.
“This is no place to turn into an industrial zone of ore haul routes, a strip mine, and potentially an acid heap leach nickel laterite processing facility with associated mine waste storage,” the letter states.
As the main shuttle driver for whitewater boaters seeking to paddle the remote North Fork Smith River, “Bearfoot” Brad Camden, of Gasquet, makes his living off the river.
Camden has collected nearly 1,300 signatures in opposition to the mining proposal for American Rivers, while local government agencies have not officially opposed the project.
Crescent City officials have said they are monitoring the mining proposal that has the potential to pollute the city water system, but they say there is not yet enough information to make any declarations.
In February, the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors declined a request from the Smith River Advisory Council to write a letter of opposition to the mining proposal, citing the need for more information.
The Del Norte Board of Supervisors have yet to reconsider weighing in on the mining issue, while the Curry County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a letter to the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest opposing any permit for Red Flat Nickel Corp.
In order to comment on the current water use application, visit this shortened URL for the Oregon Water Resources Department, http://goo.gl/XLNSKf , and click on the “Submit Public Comment” link.
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