The Red Flat Nickel Corp. is proposing to drill 35 experimental cores along a ridge above Hunter Creek and along the headwaters of Pistol River next summer, and residents in the area are unsure what to think about what they feel is the latest environmental assault on their land.
"I really care about Hunter Creek; it's very personal to me," said Dave Lacey, who held a community meeting Monday to bring awareness of the nickel company's proposal to people in his neighborhood. "A lot of things make the area special. I don't want to see it strip-mined."
The U.S. Forest Service is soliciting comment about the proposal. Comments are due by 5 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13.
Twenty residents showed up at the OSU Extension Office to hear about the ramifications of hard-rock mining in other states.
Hard-rock mining projects have happened notably in Colorado, Utah, Montana and Wyoming. Lacey said Curry County residents might be able to preemptively stop mining activity in what he says are sensitive areas critical to fish, birds and other wildlife.
The 1,100-acre property is surrounded by two parcels of Bureau of Land Management land designated as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, another parcel locals are petitioning to have named the Veva Stansell Botanical Area, the restored Hummingbird Garden, Flycatcher Springs and the popular Pyramid Peak and Signal Butte.
The preliminary decision memo indicates the company wants to obtain core samples on an existing claim. Work would include drilling 35, 3-inch-diameter holes to a maximum depth of 50 feet.
Drilling would occur in areas previously disturbed by mining, including trenches and four-wheel-drive roads, and the holes would be plugged and land restored "to its original condition, to the extent possible," the memo reads.
The exploratory drilling alone would involve the back-and-forth truck traffic along Forest Service Road 1703 - including part of a road that is seasonally closed to prevent the spread of Port Orford Cedar disease.
Mining in the woods
Lacey, who usually deals with fish habitat and stream health, only recently spotted the legal advertisement for the proposal. He said he's had his work cut out for him.
So far, he's learned Red Flat Nickel Corp., a subsidiary of St. Peter Port Capital Ltd., is registered in Panama and headquartered in the Isle of Guernsey, England - both places where offshore banking is allowed.
Another complication, he said, is the Mining Act of 1872, which states that mining is the "best use" to occur on U.S. Forest Service lands - a piece of legislation many feel is in need of revision.
Rogue River-Siskiyou District Ranger Tina Lanier said that, in general, the agency can tell a mining company "how and when," but not "if" when it comes to mineral exploration on federal land.
The Forest Service's preliminary decision memo backs that up, reading, "The decision is not whether to allow minerals exploration (because current law already authorizes those and other mining activities) but whether additional protection measures are warranted to minimize adverse environmental impacts to Forest Service resources.
"The Forest Service is neither advocating nor proposing the claimant's plan of operations," it continues. "The claimant initiated this minerals exploration proposal and has a possessory right to conduct mineral exploration and extraction operations on their claims."
"The Forest Service's hands are tied," Lacey said. "We need to untie them."
Hard-rock mining is considered to be the most toxic and polluting mining activity, often resulting in multi-billion-dollar Superfund site cleanups, sick communities and contaminated and sometimes sterile landscapes.
Many firms promise to restore the land to its original condition, but often extract the minerals it's seeking, declare bankruptcy and leave, only to set up shop under a different name somewhere else, Lacey said.
John Magliana, the Portland attorney representing the corporation, could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.
Red Flat Nickel has drilled exploratory mines in the area before.
Lacey said he is no miner and doesn't know what the appeal of nickel is. But Bloomberg News of England reported last month that although nickel is the "worst performing base mineral" this year, Indonesia plans to halt the export of the mineral early next year, thus "offering investors the best opportunity for advances in early 2014."
St. Peter Port's annual report indicated it saw a potential in exploring for nickel in the national forest.
"We have recruited a management team with strong expertise in the exploitation of nickel laterite and funded some further surface exploration work," the report read. "This has shown the presence of potentially economically attractive percentages of scandium in the nickel-bearing rock. This should considerably enhance the commercial potential of the nickel deposits."
Nickel is primarily used as an alloy to make stainless steel. The scandium often found with it is used to strengthen aluminum.
Nickel was selling for $14,500 a metric ton last month, but Citigroup Inc. economists report they believe it could go as high as $17,000 in the next year.
"A company is not going to spend the time and money if they don't think they'll capture the nickel in a full-scale," Lacey said. "They're not going back because they didn't find anything the first time. That's what's scary to me."
To extract nickel requires strip-mining, in which ridgetops and hillsides are stripped of their soil and rock; the waste rock, usually about 95 percent of what's moved, Lacey said, is left behind. And with the coast's average of 120 inches of rain washing down from mountains into salmon habitat, Lacey and others worry about the sustainability of fisheries.
Mining in Oregon
There are few nickel mines throughout the world, and the only one in the United States - Glenbrook mine in Riddle, Oregon - closed after 40 years of mining in 1996. The company left behind 39,000 cubic yards of contaminated material - after reclamation, Lacey said.
Work there entailed a smelter and blasting, and transporting a dusty orange mineral over local roads whose bridges were adversely affected. The work there resulted in a lawsuit - settled out of court - compensating those who contracted nasal and lung cancers, he added.
Because there are so few nickel mines, Lacey had to rely on data from other hard-rock mines, notably their history of system failures, chemical leaks, abandonment - and many that ultimately became either EPA Superfund sites or were abandoned for local communities to address.
And the rural Pistol Creek and Hunter Creek areas don't have the largest population base from which to derive comment, Lacey noted.
Congress, he noted, could eliminate the possibility of nickel mining "with the swipe of a pen" to remove the "mineral entry" status of the forest service parcel and withdrawing it from mining operations.
This past spring, the Red Flat Nickel Corp. also proposed drilling in 139 sites on land 12 miles west of O'Brien near the southeastern tip of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area.
Magliana said the firm is going through the hoops and hurdles required before it can begin operations.
"As anyone knows who has done business in the U.S., especially in mining, there are many hurdles to overcome before you can even think about drilling," he said in April. "My client is very sensitive to the environment and the attitude of Oregonians."