A homegrown movement to protect the pure waters & famed rivers of Southwest Oregon's Kalmiopsis - Wild Rivers Coast Region

Public opposes mining at North Fork Smith River and Baldface Creek

Opponents to the development of a nickel strip mine in the pristine watershed of the North Fork Smith River worked furiously last July to get information in to Oregon Water Resources Department and out to the public. It was a spontaneous all-out grassroots effort. Even so, the sheer volume of comments opposing the mining—over 3,0000 in just two weeks—came as a surprise to everyone.

The National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River is known for its clear waters. Wikimedia Commons
The National Wild and Scenic North Fork Smith River flows through a near pristine watershed and is known for its exceptionally clear water. Wikimedia Commons

Red Flat Nickel Corporation’s Cleopatra Mine Project is located on approximately 3,000 acres of federal mining claims in Oregon’s largest unprotected National Forest Roadless Area—the South Kalmiopsis. In June, the foreign owned company applied to Oregon Resources Department to use water from an unnamed tributary of Baldface Creek.

Baldface Creek flows into the North Fork Smith near the California border and is one of the most productive salmon and steelhead nurseries in the Smith River system.

The company wants the water for a second round of exploratory test drilling—this time 59 sites drilled down to a depth of approximately 50 feet. While the drilling is part of a continuing operation, the OWRD’s comment period was the public’s first opportunity to have a voice in what’s happening on their National Forest land.

Red Flat Nickel’s stated ultimate goal is to develop and operate a nickel laterite mine and processing facility on this wild remote corner of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. The area is directly adjacent to the California border and the Smith River National Recreation Area.

Elizabeth Henry to Del Norte Board of Supervisors: "It’s a very special area. In 1993, the Forest Service even recommended that this area have special protections. In 2004 the Bush Administration proposed a plan to protect this area.
Elizabeth Henry to Del Norte Board of Supervisors: “It’s a very special area. In 1993, the Forest Service even recommended that this area have special protections. In 2004 the Bush Administration proposed a plan to protect this area.”

At the same time citizens were scrambling to pull together substantive comments and get the word out. California State agencies, Del Norte County and Crescent City were pouring over the little information available on the drilling proposal. In the end, they opposed the development of the mine too. For more on the city and county’s opposition, read the Del Norte Triplicate. Click here to go to the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest’s Cleopatra Test Drilling webpage.

It all had to be done in two weeks. Friends of Del Norte marched in their 4th of July parade. Local residents testified before their Board of Supervisors and City Council. Water, sport and commercial fishing and conservation groups provided substantive information about the rivers and potential impacts of the drilling and mining. Whitewater boaters rallied their members.

Retired Judge Robert Weir to Del Norte Board of Supervisors: I'm a user of Crescent City water in my home and I want to voice my opposition to the project.
Retired Judge Robert Weir: “I’m a user of Crescent City water in my home and I want to voice my opposition to the project. I would also suggest we make it known now this county categorically oppose any steps toward nickel mining on any tributary of the Smith River.”

No one funded the opposition effort. It was an exemplary shared citizen’s process that came together out of a protective sense of ownership in California’s iconic Smith River—a world class salmon and steelhead stream—and one of the purest drinking water sources in the West, the North Fork Smith River.

Like the river, that sense of ownership crosses the state line. Oregonians are equally protective of the Smith and its threatened North Fork.

On September 30, 2014, Oregon Water Resources denied Red Flat Nickel Corporation’s application for water. The company then hired a former director of OWRD to represent them in an appeal. On December 30th, sixteen diverse conservation organizations, representing thousands of members across the two states, wrote to OWRD supporting the Department’s final denial order.

Eileen Cooper: "We need to do everything we can to work with our representative—our congressman, our senators—in combination with those in Oregon  so that that this beautiful river of ours is never threatened again by this kind of strip mining."
Eileen Cooper, Del Norte County resident: “We need to do everything we can to work with our congressman and senators—in combination with those in Oregon—so that that this beautiful river of ours is never threatened again by this kind of strip mining.”

So what just happened? On January 23rd, 2015, attorney Martha Pagel, representing Red Flat Nickel Corporation, withdrew the company’s application to use water for five years. In doing so, they subtly signaled victory, noting that just two days before Oregon Water Resources had announced the Department would reconsider their denial of the RFNC’s application – LL 1533. See OWRD’s case file for LL 1533 here.

But was it a victory for the mining company? We don’t think so. If citizens, state agencies and elected officials had not submitted substantive information and objected at every opportunity, OWRD would have likely granted the application and the mining company would have been assured water for their mining operation for five years.

Friends of Del Norte, marched in Crescent City's 4th of July parade.
Friends of Del Norte, marched in Crescent City’s 4th of July parade.

Now they either have to go through the application process again or come up with another plan. If the latter, it means they probably will have to amend their current Cleopatra Test Drilling Mining Plan of Operation. It’s under analysis by the Forest Service. If it’s the former, the public will need to vigilantly watch for the new water withdrawal application and respond with the same speed and vehemence.

Does Red Flat Nickel’s withdrawal of their water application mean they’re going away? Not according to this from the Del Norte Triplicate

Registered in Panama, Red Flat Nickel is owned by St. Peter Port Capital, an investment company based in the U.K. In its semi-annual report issued Dec. 12, St. Peter Port Capital reported on its subsidiary’s progress toward conducting test drilling.

“The approval process has taken far longer than was anticipated. As the principal shareholder and major economic interest in the company, we have increased our direct involvement in the project to try to bring this to a speedy conclusion. A draft decision memorandum was published in relation to the Red Flat site at the end of last year, but during a 30-day public consultation period, the relevant Forestry Service department received adverse comments, which need to be addressed. After a delay of most of this year, we believe that a process for dealing with these comments has now been devised by the Forestry Service and will shortly be implemented,” the report states. 

Note: The 30-day public consultation period St. Peter Port Capital refers to is for another nickel mine project in the headwaters of Hunter Creek and the Pistol River. The area is about 10 miles from Oregon’s Wild Rivers Coast and Cape Sebastian State Scenic Corridor. It’s known locally as Red Flat.

While not reflected in the company’s half year report, the proposed test drilling at Red Flat met with overwhelming local opposition too. Over 600 comments were submitted opposing the mining,  See the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest’s web page for the RF-38 test drilling and the Curry County Board of Commissioners letter of opposition to the mining.

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