The Gold Beach City Council last week put a roadblock in the path of the Red Flat Mining Corporation's hopes of drilling exploratory holes for nickel near the headwaters of Hunter Creek when it passed a policy stating construction and firefighting are the only uses for which it will sell its water.

Red Flat is proposing to drill 35 experimental cores along a ridge above Hunter Creek and along the headwaters of Pistol River this summer, and needs water to do so. Months ago, the firm asked the city of Gold Beach if it sold water, indicating it would need 1,000 gallons of water for each of the 35 holes its hopes to drill.

"In the past, when people want to buy water, we never asked them what they're using the water for - they ask and we sell water," said City Administrator Jodi Fritts. "But if we're going to want to limit the sale of water, administratively, I'd prefer we'd have a policy for that: yes, and for following purposes."

The company has not made any request in regards to its proposal in recent months, but Lacey wanted to preemptively alert the city to the firm's intent.

Additionally, Fritts noted that the area of operation is outside the city limits, so the mining company could obtain water from another entity for the work.

"I think if this goes through, they'll find their water elsewhere," Fritts said. "But this (policy) sends the message to our citizens that we say where our water goes and for what purposes."

Lacey said he appreciated the city's concern.

"This is a soft, but real way of expressing concern for the Red Flat Mining Corporation and their plans to explore and mine up Hunter Creek and Pistol River," said Dave Lacey, a homeowner at the headwaters of Hunter Creek, and who is leading the opposition to the mining company's proposition.

He says it's "soft," because while Gold Beach might have control over the use of its water rights, the U.S. Forest Service has control over how its lands are used. And mining laws dating back almost 150 years still list extractive industries as a top priority, he said.

The firm has submitted a similar proposal for approximately 3,100 acres south of Red Flat on Forest Service land in the North Fork Smith and Baldface Creek watersheds. The Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest will begin analysis on this proposal soon.

"I would like to see the federal government update their mining laws; that's the real problem," said city administrator Jodi Fritts. "You can say the mining companies are mean and evil, but the federal laws allow them to be. The laws need to be changed to reflect our modern times - you can't go with a law that was made in 1872. And I feel bad for the Forest Service people; their hands are tied, as well."

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."

Other concerns

Lacey and others are concerned about upstream water contamination, as well as what might be left behind by a mining company.

One aspect he dislikes is that Red Flat isn't even an American company. The company is 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.

The United States got into mining during World War II, when it realized it imported all its nickel for its fighting planes. The only nickel mine in the nation, the Glenbrook Mine in Riddle ceased operations in 1993 after 40 years of activity.

According to the mining firm's proposal, drilling at Red Flat would take place 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 Oregon Coastal Alliance isn't sold on that.

Typically, the organization wrote, hard-rock strip-mining firms have a poor reputation when it comes to reclamation. Commonly, the company mines an area, declares bankruptcy and leaves the mess behind.

The land in Riddle now comprises 39,000 cubic yards of contaminated material, huge slag piles and holding ponds. In 1997, Glenbrook Nickel was named the third-largest toxic polluter in the state, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Release Inventory.

"That was the one concern of two councilors - Larry Brennan and Doug Brand - who have lived in Arizona where there's a lot of strip mining," Fritts said. "Neither of them were particularly thrilled about this."

Another concern is the effects a mine could have on the work to get Curry County recognized as a popular tourism and natural recreation area.

The 1,100-acre property in which Red Flat Mining hopes to drill is surrounded by the Flycatcher Springs, Pyramid Peak, Signal Butte, the restored Hummingbird Garden, two parcels of Bureau of Land Management land designated as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, and another parcel that locals are petitioning to have named the Veva Stansell Botanical Area in honor of a local woman who roamed the area as a child exploring among the flowers.

"It runs contrary to everything we've been doing about outdoor recreation and tourism," Fritts said. "We don't need a mine when we're trying to spotlight our pristine environment."