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Concerns surface about RNR Nickel Mine and smelter proposed at Rough and Ready Creek

The public has heard little about the RNR Nickel Mine at Rough and Ready Creek, but a lot has been happening behind the scenes. According to court records, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest has raised concerns about certain aspects of the proposal.  The agency has asked the mining company, RNR Resources, to provide information on how they will resolve the concerns.

One issue Forest Service experts have raised is that the large amounts of smelter slag (waste) produced by RNR Resources smelting process may have a high chromium content. According to the BLM mineral report for the Nicore Claims Group, this could cause slag to be classed as a toxic waste.

Documents reveal that if this were to be the case, a permanent slag storage facility would need to be part of the RNR Project’s mine plan. Currently storage is proposed on the Rough and Ready Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). The documents raising this and other concerns were found in exhibits to a July 1st Justice Department filing in the ongoing Freeman v. USA $600,000,000 5th Amendment takings lawsuit before the Court of Federal Claims.

Photo in BLM's 2005 Nicore Mineral Report showing smelter layout proposed at Rough and Ready Creek.
Photo of a potential smelter layout provided by the proponent of the RNR Project for the Bureau of Land Management’s 2005 Nicore Mineral Report.

The court records also reveal that the agency believes RNR Resources needs to construct a pilot processing facility to resolve some of the uncertainties in its mining plan.

While Forest Service representatives says they’ve returned the plan of operations to RNR Resources, the court records show that the Forest Service has not rejected the proposed nickel mine and further that the agency has assured RNR Resources they will continue work with the company to develop the project.


Wildflower walk at Rough and Ready Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern, Bob Ziller photo.
Wildflower walk at the Rough and Ready Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern near where RNR Resources wants to build a smelter and ore drying facility. The ACEC is a favorite community open space and has an unually high concentration of rare plants (Robert Ziller photo).

In addition, an owner of RNR Resources still wants to privatize over 4,000 acres of National Forest and BLM land at Rough and Ready Creek using the patenting provision of the 1872 Mining Law.[1] If the patent were to be granted, the land would become private property for $2.50 per acre.

Unlike the Nicore Mine proposal for Rough and Ready Creek in the 1990s, the RNR Project plan includes the construction of a smelter and ore drying facility.[2] While the Nicore Project underwent environmental analysis by the Forest Service and BLM, the impacts of a smelter were never analyzed because the proponent did not disclose how and where the mined nickel laterite would be processed.

In the 1999 Forest Service Nicore Decision, the agency found the mining (essentially strip mining) and the proposed network of ore haul roads would “irretrievably” and “drastically” change the character of the Rough and Ready Creek  landscape. The decision concluded that the project would put at risk surface resources such as clean water, an eligible Wild and Scenic River, a cherished roadless area and rare plants. It would also have adverse affects on nearby residents.

The Rough and Ready Creek ACEC is located on the valley floor and unique flood plain that’s about 4 miles wide. There are residents in the vicinity of the ACEC.  The ACEC is also a favorite community open space.

Based on thousands of comments received in opposition to the Nicore Mine, the findings of scientists and their own analysis, the Forest Service concluded the Rough and Ready Creek Area has,

  • extremely high scientific, social and ecological values that would be put at risk by the mining; and
  • that the area’s exceptionally clean water, recreation opportunities, rare plants and scenic values were highly valued by the public and were scare, particularly when compared to the availability of nickel bearing ore world-wide.

In other words, there’s only one Rough and Ready Creek. Nickel laterite deposits, on the other hand, are not scarce. Download the USDA Forest Service’s Record of Decision (834 KB) for the Nicore Mine Project through Oregon State University’s library system.

Court records discuss the smelter (an electric arc furnace) that’s being proposed by RNR Resources. According to one court document, it would, by necessity, operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except for brief periods of maintenance. Also discussed is the potential for explosions, if the material fed into the furnace is not dried sufficiently.[3]

While not classes as a toxic material, mountains of slag remain on the former site of Glenbrook Nickel at Riddle, Oregon (Google Earth)
While not classed as a toxic material, mountains of slag remain on the former site of Glenbrook Nickel at Riddle, Oregon, The smelter closed permanently in 1998 (Google Earth image)

The BLM’s 2005 Nicore Mineral Report expressed concerns that the large quantities of slag (waste) produced by the smelter would have a high chromium content. The report had this to say:

It is quite possible that the Nicore slag would fail to pass a TCLP test [Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure] and, as such, would not be suitable for aggregate or abrasive. Because the quantity of slag produced is relatively large, approximately 36,500 tons per year, it should be disposed of on-site.[4]

The BLM report also discloses that the government has concerns about the presence of naturally occurring asbestos in the Rough and Ready Creek area and the impacts of disturbing these areas. The new Forest Service document discusses these concerns in more detail. To be continued.


[1] See original and amended complaint in Freeman v. USA. Amended complaint is Case 1:01-cv-00039-BAF Document 167 Filed 04/19/13.

[2] We’ve discussed elsewhere how the proponent of the Nicore Nickel Mine formed a new company (RNR Resources), located new mining claims at Rough and Ready Creek (2009) and submitted a new plan to mine the area (2011). Like the Nicore mine plan of operations before it, the RNR Project plan appears to be short on details like the Nicore mining plan before it. The USDA Forest Service’s Record of Decision for the Nicore Mine Project discusses the missing information and the environmental impact statement for the mine includes a long list of correspondence between Nicore and the Forest Service, with the Forest Service repeatedly requesting critically important information, such as where and how Nicore planned to process the nickel laterite soils mined at Rough and Ready Creek.

[3] Case 1:01-cv-00039-BAF Document 104-2 Filed 05/04/2009

[4] USDI Bureau of Land Management, Mineral Report Nicore Claims Group, January 31, 2005, p. 13-4.

[5] From the New York Times Guest Opinion “A Mining Law Whose Time Has Passed” by Robert M. Hughes and Carol Ann Woody

As Michael P. Dombeck, a former chief of the Forest Service, explained to a Senate committee in 2008, “it is nearly impossible to prohibit mining under the current framework of the 1872 mining law, no matter how serious the impacts might be.”

Under the law, mining companies — not the government — decide whether and where to file their claims on public land. (National parks, monuments and wilderness areas are excluded.) Federal agencies review the plans, but they are approved as a matter of course. Mining companies pledge to protect rivers threatened by their operations. But the industry’s track record hardly inspires confidence.

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