MAZAMA, Okanogan County —
Behind the general store and the outdoor gear shop — above the inn and horse corral — granite walls and pine-covered hills rise thousands of feet to form a towering nob called Goat Peak.
This fixture overlooking the North Cascades’ upper Methow Valley — one of the most popular outdoor playgrounds in the state — is where residents and visitors, including many from Seattle, walk dogs, run trails, cross-country ski, snowmobile, hike, bike and even paraglide.
Now a Canadian mining company wants to explore the earth beneath this recreation hot spot to see if metals marbled into the rock are plentiful enough for a copper mine.
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And despite mountains of opposition, the U.S. agency overseeing exploration maintains it’s powerless to stop the project.
Not 2 miles from the heart of Mazama, Vancouver-based Blue River Resources is proposing to drill as many as 15 bore holes 1,000 feet deep to see how much copper and molybdenum ore is there. The drilling could go on 24 hours a day for months, and would require the company to haul thousands of gallons of water up the mountain. The drilling could start later this summer.
With gold running out at a major mine 130 miles away in Tonasket and that company backing off its own massive exploration plan there, some in Okanogan County are hopeful that work in Mazama could lead to the region’s next mine.
“I’m tremendously supportive of the Mazama project,” said state Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda. “Many people are.”
But the Methow Valley has always been a bit apart from the rest of the county.
Goat Peak sits not far from the Pasayten Wilderness, directly across Highway 20 from a butte where entrepreneurs once tried to build a ski resort. They were driven off by a community that battled for decades to keep this valley largely undeveloped.
In fact, a sizable number of the 5,300 residents living in this 70-mile-long valley have expressed outrage at the prospect of exploration. The Forest Service received nearly 750 comments on the drilling plan, the vast majority opposed.
“This project has brought the most fan mail I’ve seen in awhile,” said Mike Liu, Winthrop District Ranger for the Forest Service.
No other issue in Liu’s five years here has generated quite this much controversy.
In part that’s because, as incompatible as mining and recreation may appear, the federal government’s General Mining Law of 1872 only allows regulators to try and force claim holders to avoid or repair environmental damage.
And the industry and U.S. government track record at preventing or cleaning up mine contamination is far from stellar.
“At the end of the day, we could require certain kinds of mitigation,” Liu said. “But to say ‘no you can’t develop,’ that’s not part of my authority.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains hard-rock mining is the nation’s worst polluting industry, and has left a toxic legacy across the West that could cost taxpayers $54 billion to restore. Yet the 1872 law still lets citizens or companies slap claims on public lands for $5 an acre and mine without paying royalties to the federal government.
Those claims are given such priority that former Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck once told a congressional committee that even ecologically hazardous mining was “nearly impossible to prohibit.”
Methow Valley residents insist they’ll find a way.
For a community built by people who often abandoned busy lives elsewhere to live quietly where they can fish, climb rock spires like Liberty Bell, or walk among wildflowers after work, the mere possibility of a major copper mine is unthinkable.
“Allowing this to go forward is simply out of the question,” said resident Pat Leigh, who moved to the valley after visiting for years as a hiker and a backpacker.
“It can’t happen. We won’t let it.”
It’s not that this is the first attempt at hard-rock mining in this scenic region.
Millions of dollars in gold, silver and zinc have been pulled since the 1870s from adits on Washington Pass and Harts Pass — even from Goat Peak itself. Most of the mines were abandoned decades ago, before the valley exploded as an adventure wonderland.
But the possibility always loomed in the background. In the 1970s, Quintana Mining drilled 52 holes where Blue River now owns claims. The company said it found evidence of enough copper ore — about 1 billion pounds — that it talked of building a mile-long, 1,500-foot-deep open-pit copper mine.
But copper prices never rose high enough to make mining profitable, and the rights got sold. Another company conducted more exploration seven years ago, but the financial crisis battered copper prices again.
Today copper’s value is more than triple what it was 40 years ago, and Blue River is seeking Forest Service approval to begin exploratory drilling on Aug. 1. The company also wants to investigate gold deposits reportedly found here in 1918.
Company officials did not respond to repeated messages left by The Seattle Times, but documents filed with the Forest Service outline their plans.
The exploration would take place on a saddle between Goat Peak and adjacent Flagg Mountain. The company would haul in a drill on a flatbed truck, skid the rig from site to site along old forest roads with a bulldozer, and set up a trailer in the woods for drill maintenance. A water truck would ferry 2,500 gallons a day to a temporary storage tank.
Liu, with the Forest Service, said this initial exploration is minor enough it doesn’t require massive study, but government regulators are conducting some review. They want to try to make sure exploration won’t pollute drinking-water wells or nearby Goat Creek, a spawning stream for threatened steelhead and bull trout. Drilling would start after spotted owl nesting season.
But if Blue River deems exploration a success, there likely would be a bigger round of drilling before it sought permission to build a mine. At each step along the way, Liu said, the agency would require evermore substantial environmental review.
Still, the location all but guaranteed Blue River would face significant criticism.
One of the closest businesses to the site is the Mazama Country Inn. It has been owned for 20 years by Bill Pope, a former corporate attorney for Microsoft, who also worked as general counsel for Paul Allen’s Vulcan, and who for years has held seats on the boards of many environmental groups, including Washington Conservation Voters, Earthjustice and the Nature Conservancy of Washington.
On a recent drive to the drilling site with his two dogs, Pope explained some of his many objections
“Nobody here wants a mine, but I also have concerns about the drilling itself,” he said.
“This is late-successional forest. It’s above the headwaters of Goat Creek. We have concerns about impacts on wetlands and Forest Service roads, and what that might mean for siltation.”
His friend, George Wooten, a biologist from Twisp who also works for the environmental group Conservation Northwest, said runoff from forest roads could affect creeks that flow into the Methow River. He also worries about noise and invasive weeds that have spread as a result of previous exploration.
But Pope, like many others, isn’t thinking solely about ecology. His inn sits at a junction next door to the Mazama Store, where nearly every hiker, biker and skier who enters the valley from the west stops for gas or a drink or to wolf down a sandwich on the concrete patio.
“I’m in the tourism business,” Pope said. “Are mountain bikers going to keep coming through with a drill rig passing by? Goat Peak is one of the most popular trails in Mazama.”
And for many here the chief concern is where it could all lead.
Valley residents’ fears
On a hot, cloudy afternoon, eight valley residents sat outside the Mazama Store, sipping water and stealing glances toward Goat Peak.
“A mine here has the potential to completely change this place,” said Scott Johnston, a climber, former US Ski Team member and valley resident who trains Olympic skiers and professional mountaineers. He also mountain bikes on Goat Peak.
Valley resident Ralph Gandy has traveled around the world and seen his share of beautiful areas.
“But this place beats them all,” he said. “It really does. The Methow River is one of the cleanest rivers left. Why risk that?”
Poisoned tailings leaching from hard-rock mines and toxic soot from metal smelting have soured about 40 percent of the headwaters of streams in the West, according to the EPA. In some years, the mining industry releases nearly half as many toxic metals as all other industries combined.
Many companies, such as Asarco, former owner of the smelter outside Tacoma that polluted areas in North Pierce and South King counties with lead and arsenic, file for bankruptcy before completing cleanup, forcing court battles.
Yet attempts at reform keep collapsing. The Obama administration pushed for changes in 2009. Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar argued that taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for mining devastation.
“We have royalties now that are paid for most of the minerals that we have in our public lands, and yet somehow that has eluded us with respect to hard-rock minerals,” he told a Senate committee.
Proposals by Salazar and other Democrats were killed in 2010 by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the son of a hard-rock miner, who represents Nevada — itself one of the world’s largest gold producers.
Liu said any talk of actual mining in Mazama remains premature — the Forest Service can only respond to what’s proposed, and it would be years before anyone knows whether a mine is a realistic possibility.
But residents here recall how long investors fought to try to build a ski resort.
Even if Blue River walks away or doesn’t find what it’s looking for, opponents think another company could always come in and try again.
Asked how much confidence he had that the battle with Blue River over copper would be Mazama’s last mining battle, resident Alan Fahnestock formed a zero with his fingers. Others around the patio nodded.
“It feels to us like we just can’t let our guard down,” Leigh said.
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or email@example.com On Twitter @craigawelch