Public tells Forest Service to expand proposed mining ban in portion of Black Hills
A 2015 view of the Pactola Reservoir in the Black Hills. (Courtesy of Black Hills National Forest)
RAPID CITY – Dozens of people told federal officials Wednesday that they not only support a proposed ban on new mining-related activity in a portion of the Black Hills, but also want the ban expanded.
The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management hosted a four-hour public input meeting at the Rapid City Ramkota Hotel. Beyond the dozens who spoke, hundreds attended, and most appeared to support the proposed mining ban.
The ban would cover about 32 square miles encompassing the Pactola Reservoir and areas of public land upstream that drain into the reservoir via Rapid Creek.
Many speakers said they want the boundaries of the proposed ban expanded to cover more of the Rapid Creek watershed, plus additional watersheds or even the entire Black Hills National Forest.
Some of the speakers expressed concerns about the potential impact of mining on water availability and quality. One of those speakers was Rapid City resident Jay Davis.
“This is our drinking water. This is our lifeline. Water is life,” Davis said.
Native Americans from several South Dakota-based tribes shared similar concerns. They also spoke about the potential impact of mining on areas of cultural significance in the Black Hills – a region that figures prominently in Native American history and spirituality.
Doug Crow Ghost spoke on behalf of the Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance.
“The Forest Service should impose a moratorium on all mining in the Black Hills,” Crow Ghost said.
A few speakers defended exploration and mining. Larry Mann, who has worked as a lobbyist for mining companies, said all future mining-related activity in the affected area should not be prohibited based on concerns about a current exploratory drilling proposal. He said exploratory drilling rarely locates economically viable deposits, and the number of drilling projects that result in mines is minimal.
“Why are we setting our hair on fire over something that the science even says is unlikely to occur?” Mann said.
Origin of controversy
The current controversy over potential drilling in the Pactola Reservoir area began about four years ago. That’s when Minneapolis-based F3 Gold went public with a plan to conduct exploratory drilling for gold in the Jenney Gulch area of the Black Hills National Forest, within a mile of Pactola. The man-made mountain lake is the largest and deepest reservoir in the Black Hills. It’s also a popular recreation destination and a drinking-water source for Rapid City and Ellsworth Air Force Base.
F3 Gold won draft approval of its drilling plan last year from local Forest Service officials. Then, in March, the national offices of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management announced they’re considering a 20-year ban on new mining-related activity in the Pactola region.
Deputy Regional Forester Jacqueline Buchanan, who is based at a Forest Service office in Colorado, attended Wednesday’s meeting and said the draft approval of the drilling plan was subject to an objection period. It was during that period when she and other Forest Service officials took note of objections regarding water and cultural resources, she said.
“So out of the objection process, the conversations started around whether there are other options we should consider,” Buchanan told South Dakota Searchlight.
The option currently being considered is formally called a “mineral withdrawal,” because it would withdraw an area of public land from eligibility for mining-related activities. Twenty years is the maximum period allowed by federal law, although a mineral withdrawal can be renewed after that. Only Congress can enact a permanent mineral withdrawal on federal land.
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Impact on F3 plan
Since federal officials proposed the mineral withdrawal in March, it has been unclear how it would affect F3 Gold, which not only has draft approval of its drilling plan but also has a completed environmental assessment.
The Forest Service is now saying that the final decision on F3’s drilling plan won’t come anytime soon.
“The Forest Service has postponed issuing a final decision on the Jenney Gulch Gold Exploration Drilling Project,” say documents from the agency released in conjunction with Wednesday’s meeting, “until the environmental analysis and withdrawal process for the requested withdrawal is completed.”
That could take up to two years, which is the maximum “segregation period” while federal officials consider implementing the mineral withdrawal. During the segregation period – which began March 21 – the mineral withdrawal essentially takes effect temporarily while federal officials gather the public input, studies and analysis needed to decide whether the mineral withdrawal should be implemented for a 20-year term. That decision will be made by the secretary of the Department of the Interior (the department oversees the Bureau of Land Management, which manages mining claims on federal land).
Mining has been continuous in the Black Hills since the 1870s, and some past mines have caused extensive water pollution.
The Homestake Mine in Lead so polluted Whitewood Creek decades ago that the waterway was known colloquially as “Cyanide Creek” before it was cleaned up pursuant to modern environmental regulations.
The company that owned the Gilt Edge Mine near Lead went bankrupt and abandoned the mine in the 1990s, leaving pits containing a combined 150 million gallons of water laden with lead, arsenic and cadmium. The mine remains under an active cleanup funded by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund.
Because of the Black Hills’ long mining history, the region is littered with mining claims staked by prospectors ranging from hobbyists to global conglomerates. The Forest Service says F3 Gold alone has about 800 claims in the proposed mineral withdrawal area.
A mineral withdrawal would only prohibit new claims, but there’s also a process to contest existing claims. If holders of existing claims are unable to show “a discovery of a valuable mineral deposit,” in the official language of the Forest Service, the claims may be declared null and void.
“F3 has active claims in the requested withdrawal area,” says a Forest Service document, “however, it has not been determined whether and how many are supported by the discovery of a valuable mineral deposit.”
Proving the discovery of a valuable mineral deposit is a process of its own, involving certified examiners who analyze maps, samples, data and mine cost models. The Forest Service says any discovery must predate the start of the mineral withdrawal process.
In other words, for F3 Gold to utilize its mineral claims, the company may have to prove its claims harbor a valuable deposit without being allowed to conduct exploratory drilling.
Scott Haight, of the Bureau of Land Management, attended Wednesday’s meeting and told South Dakota Searchlight it’s “theoretically possible” to prove a valuable mineral deposit without drilling. But he added that “drilling is the usual mechanism for making a discovery.”Pactola_Reservoir-Rapid_Creek_Watershed_Withdrawal_Figure_1
F3 Gold did not attend Wednesday’s meeting. An official representing the company told South Dakota Searchlight by phone that the company is studying the publicly available information about the proposed mineral withdrawal and withholding comment until the company receives further communications from the Forest Service.
The proposed mineral withdrawal is currently subject to a 90-day public comment period that will close June 20. The Forest Service plans to announce additional opportunities for public involvement as the process moves forward.
In the meantime, F3 Gold has other projects, including a proposal for exploratory drilling near Custer that drew vehement opposition during a public meeting earlier this year.
Several other companies have active exploratory drilling operations or plans for drilling in other areas of the central and northern Black Hills. The region’s only active, large-scale gold mine is the Wharf Mine near Lead.
Beyond gold, activists concerned about water quality in the Black Hills have called attention to a recent proliferation of lithium claims, as companies consider the region’s potential as a source of the material for the electric battery industry.
How to comment on the proposed mineral withdrawal
Electronic comments may be submitted to https://cara.fs2c.usda.gov/Public/CommentInput?project=NP-3479.
Written comments may be submitted to Bryan Karchut, Black Hills National Forest, 1019 N. 5th Street, Custer, SD 57730.
Comments sent by email will not be accepted.
The deadline to submit comments is June 20.
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