Friday, February 15, 2008

Forest Service approves uranium exploration near Stanley

Yankee Fork area to be drilled for 21 exploratory cores


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

The initial Big Hank Exploration Project area has been scaled back from a 3.5-mile area to roughly 2 acres. Shown here is the initial area requested for exploration by Magnum Minerals USA Corp.

The Salmon River Mountains northeast of Stanley are a mineral-rich region, and are about to become home to a uranium exploration project.

The Yankee Fork Ranger District of the Salmon-Challis National Forest has decided to allow Vancouver-based Magnum Minerals USA Corp. to drill 21 exploratory cores ranging from 30 to 100 feet deep in an approximately two-acre area west of the confluence of the Salmon River and the Yankee Fork. It is a scaled-back version of the company's initial application.

Each drilling site in the so-called Big Hank Exploration Project will include a 1,100-gallon sump.

Following collection of public input, exploration was approved last month as a "categorical exclusion" under the National Environmental Policy Act, which means that no thorough environmental study will be required.

"The Big Hank project meets the intent of the category because it will authorize approval of less than one full year of operations, it requires less than one mile of use and minor repair of existing roads and there are no extraordinary circumstances or other issues that would require the preparation of an EA (environmental assessment) or EIS (environmental impact statement)," wrote Yankee Fork District Ranger Ralph Rau in his January decision memo.

Rau approved a scaled-back version of Magnum's initial request, which was for 71 exploratory holes over a 3.5-square-mile area. The company submitted its plan to the forest on March 5, 2007.

Dave Richmond, co-founder of Friends of the West, an environmental group based in the downstream town of Clayton, called Magnum's proposal "totally irresponsible." He said the Salmon River and its wildlife are more important than the economic benefits that uranium mining could provide.

"The salmon swim 900 miles to get to Stanley," he said. "That's a pretty important resource."

Even so, the Salmon River Mountains, and the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River drainage in particular, have been heavily mined in the past. The Land of the Yankee Fork State Park was established to showcase Idaho's mining heritage and includes the ghost towns of Custer and Bonanza, as well as a defunct gold dredge that was owned by Idaho potato magnate J.R. Simplot.

The defunct Grouse Creek Gold Mine, a large strip mine, is near the headwaters of Jordan Creek, a tributary of the Yankee Fork. Cleanup of leaking cyanide from Grouse Creek has been ongoing since the late 1990s.

The Thompson Creek molybdenum mine is downstream, near the Salmon River hamlet of Clayton.

The Big Hank Exploration Project is within the Harden Creek section of an area referred to as the Stanley uranium district. Uranium ore was processed from nearby mines in the district in the late 1950s to early 1960s, and exploratory drilling and trenching occurred in the Big Hank target area during the same period. According to Magnum, 7,000 tons of uranium ore were removed from the area during that time.

The Basin Creek Management Area of the Challis National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan recognizes mining as a legitimate use of public land there.

"Desired Future Condition: Mineral activity will occur at a rate consistent with mineral prices," the plan states.

In his decision memo, Rau noted that exploration would not threaten federally listed species, or impact riparian areas, road-free areas, natural areas or culturally significant sites.

John Robison, public lands director for the Idaho Conservation League, said his concern is not so much the exploratory drilling but the impacts that could result if a mine is ultimately established.

"If they actually wanted to take it into production I think they would find that the public really values keeping the Salmon River healthy and keeping and protecting clean water," he said. "We don't want another Thompson Creek or Grouse Creek on our hands."

Robison acknowledged that everyone uses metals and minerals.

"ICL supports responsible mining," he said. "But any time the Salmon River watershed is at risk, people are going to be paying attention."

According to Magnum, an initial survey indicated "a large and significant uranium anomaly" in the area. Magnum said the uranium is in sandstone embedded in old stream channels in the underlying granite.




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