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Oregon Nickel Mine Proposal Runs Into Stiff Opposition

PGHolbrook/Wikimedia Commons

A Britain-based company is making preliminary moves that could lead to a 4,000-acre open-pit nickel mine being established in the headwaters of the Smith and Illinois Rivers in southwest Oregon.

The firm says it’s at the beginning of a long process of evaluating whether such a mine would even pencil out. But opponents in Oregon and California are taking no chances.  They’re going all-out to kill it in the cradle.

Barbara Ullian minces no words.

Barbara Ullian: “The best time to stop a mine is before it starts.”

Ullian heads Friends of the Kalmiopsis, a conservation group based in Grants Pass, not far from the proposed mining exploration. She’s lived in the region since 1947 and sees it as uniquely precious.

Barbara Ullian: “The Smith River has some of the clearest, purest water in the west. It has a world-class salmon and steelhead fishery. It is iconic in California because it’s California’s only undammed river system.”

The Smith is a popular destination for kayakers, fishermen and others seeking backcountry recreation in an unspoiled river setting. Baldface Creek – a tributary of the Smith and a watershed where the mine exploration is proposed -- was recommended by the US Forest Service to be added to the adjacent KalmiopsisWiIderness. 

It’s also the source of drinking water for a number of downstream communities, including Crescent City, California. So, why would you want to put a nickel mine there?

Greg Peden: “There’s a market for it and there’s a high demand for it and producing it here in the US we think has economic benefits.”

Greg Peden is with Gallatin Public Affairs in Portland. He represents the Red Flat Nickel Corporation. He notes nickel is used in the batteries that power everything from electric cars to your cell phone. 

And, government surveys in the 1970s found there are “significant” amounts of nickel, cobalt and chromium under the soil in the area.

Greg Peden: “We need these metals. The US needs these metals, the world needs these metals. And we think we can do it in an environmentally-responsible way.”

Right now, all Red Flat Nickel is proposing is a fairly modest program of exploration. The company wants to helicopter a drilling rig about the size of a pickup truck into the roadless area and drill 59 test holes, three inches in diameter, 30 to 50 feet deep. 

To do that, they want to take water from a nearby creek to cool and lubricate the drill. The amount of water the project expects to use is modest and the company’s plan goes to some pains to keep possible pollutants contained.

Greg Peden stresses that – while the claim area is nearly 4,000 acres – the plan is exploratory, with no guarantee that a mine will ever be built.

Greg Peden: “At this stage in the process, it’s hard to paint a picture for folks of what the benefits of a project like this and the negative impacts of a project like this may be, and how to fairly address them.”

That’s not keeping a raft of environmental, recreational and fishing groups, state agencies and tribal and municipal governments from opposing the project. 

Figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show metal mining releases more toxics than all other industries combined. Acid waste leeching into watercourses is a major cause of mining damage. So, with so much at stake in the Smith River, opponents are piling on.

Zeke Grader: “Most of the mining we’ve seen in the past has been fairly destructive.”

Zeke Grader heads the West Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. He says at a time when Pacific salmon stocks are in peril, taking risks with an unspoiled river makes no sense ... Joseph Vaile, with the Klamath SiskiyouWildlands Center in Ashland, paints a grim picture of a mine’s potential impact.

Joseph Vaile: “Roads crisscrossing this pristine wildland and turning what is currently a beautiful watershed into a large-scale industrial mining operation.”

Vaile’s was one of 17 conservation groups that recently sent a letter urging the Oregon Water Resources Department to deny Red Flat Nickel the license needed to draw drilling water from the creek. Mine opponents see this relatively minor permit as perhaps their best chance to stop the project before it gains momentum. 

A major cause of their anxiety is the 1872 Mining Law. Signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, the law gives great deference to mining claims.

Michael Blumm: “It gives the discoverer a property right in the minerals, and the right to exploit them.”

Michael Blumm is a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland.  

Opponents say the law’s 19th Century view of natural resources makes it almost impossible to stop a mine. But Blumm says it’s not quite that black and white.

Michael Blumm: “There’s a lot of discretion on the part of the government approving a mine plan. More so than certainly the miners think. And maybe more than the government is willing to exercise.”

Hoping to persuade the government to use that discretion, opponents have flooded both the Forest Service and the Oregon Water Resources Department with negative comments. The Water Department says “a few thousand” responses were received during the recently-ended comment period, far more than normal. 

Likewise, the Forest Service just sent a letter to Red Flat Nickel saying the level of public concern was so high the agency won’t have staffing available to adequately assess its mining plan until at least November.

Company representatives say they’re prepared for a long, arduous permitting process. The mine’s opponents appear ready to oblige. 

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.