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Mining firm's Mount St. Helens plan sparks fight

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BY Phuong Le
Associated Press
SEATTLE -- A Canadian company wants to continue test drilling for copper and other minerals near Mount St. Helens in southwest Washington, but environmentalists worry the move could open the door to mine development near a national monument.
A subsidiary of Vancouver, B.C.-based Ascot Resources is seeking permits from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to drill 63 small holes on federal forest land mostly within the blast zone of the 1980 volcanic eruption. The company wants to explore both private and public mineral estates.
The area is rich in copper but the company won't know that until it explores, said Robert Evans, Ascot's chief financial officer. It's too early to know whether the company would move forward with a mine, he added.
"Until you've got the results, you don't know if you've got an economically viable deposit," said Evans. "You don't know how you're going to proceed. We're just trying to find out some facts."
BLM is evaluating the company's plans and is holding public meetings Wednesday and Thursday to decide what should be included in an environmental assessment.
Ascot is seeking two prospecting permits to drill on forest land near Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, which draws thousands of visitors and recreationists each year.
If all goes well, Evans said, the company hoped to be in the field by mid-September.
Opponents worry about what exploratory drilling would do to nearby streams and recreational areas. They say a hard-rock mine located on the edge of the monument could potentially pollute drinking water for surrounding communities, as well as interfere with hunting, fishing and backcountry hiking.
"We still have concerns about what Ascot will be doing on this area," said Jessica Walz, conservation director for Gifford Pinchot Task Force, an advocacy group based in Portland, Ore. "From our perspective, you wouldn't put as much money if you weren't intending to do something a lot larger."
Ascot began exploratory drilling in 2010 in an area that has been periodically explored for copper, gold, silver and other minerals for over a century. Company officials said the results were promising enough to continue.
Ascot then planned in late 2011 to drill another 30 holes in the same area but those plans were delayed.
Last July, the Gifford Pinchot Task Force environmental group sued in federal court in Tacoma to get the federal agency to conduct a full environmental review.
The U.S. Forest Service had given Ascot the go-ahead to drill in 2011 on nearly 220 acres of forest land, for which the company owned part of the subsurface mineral rights. But the agency later withdrew its approval letter, deciding to work with BLM to do one environmental assessment for all of the company's proposed exploratory drilling in the area, said Chris Strebig, a spokesman for Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Evans said the company agreed with the decision.
Under the plan being considered, Ascot wants to explore at 23 sites with about 63 holes 2- to 3-inch boreholes. Each drill site would be smaller than 400-square feet, and work will use former roads and drill pads, many of which were established by a previous company.
"What we're doing is a very small drill program with virtually no environment impact. The whole area is less than a quarter of acre," Evans said.
Ascot is not seeking a lease right, which would require further environmental review and leasing process, according to BLM. In 2008, the Bureau of Land Management denied a lease application from another company, General Moly, encompassing nearly 900 acres north of the volcano.

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