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Red Flat still eyes nickel mine in Smith River drainage

An international mining company has resumed its attempts to do exploratory drilling for nickel in a remote corner of southeast Curry County that has been proposed for federal wilderness protection.

The Red Flat Nickel Corp. has petitioned the Oregon Water Resources Department to reconsider its refusal to grant the company a temporary license to use surface water from an unnamed upper Smith River tributary for test drilling through fall 2018.

Opponents fear that exploratory drilling could lead to a massive strip mine that could degrade a region the first Bush Administration proposed to add to the adjacent Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area and harm the Wild and Scenic values of California's North Fork of the Smith River.

The water-license application, which the agency denied Sept. 30, drew more than 3,000 comments of opposition over environmental concerns as well as from California communities that draw their drinking water from the Smith.

Red Flat Nickel hired attorney and former OWRD Director Martha Pagel, who filed its reconsideration petition.

"We expected that they would challenge it," said Barbara Ullian of Friends of the Kalmiopsis. "Red Flat Nickel Corp. is dead serious about developing this mine."

The proposed drilling operation, which has yet to be publicly vetted by the Forest Service, is in a piece of the upper Smith River drainage inside Oregon within the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest's South Kalmiopsis Roadless Area.

The company asked the OWRD for a limited water-use license to draw 10 gallons per minute from the unnamed tributary of Taylor Creek, which is part of the Baldface Creek drainage. Both creeks are eligible for potential federal Wild and Scenic river designation, but they are within one of the few areas of the Smith Basin still open to mining.

The Smith is one of California's largest undammed rivers and home to wild chinook salmon and steelhead runs. It provides the drinking water source for downstream communities in California from Gasquet to Crescent City.

Water-resources officials denied the permit for several reasons, including that the operation was not in the public interest.

In a Nov. 24 letter to the OWRD asking for the reconsideration, Pagel said the department's claim that the unnamed tributary of Baldface Creek did not have the 10 gallons per minute of flow was based on a September site visit during the creek's lowest flow period. The company claims that amount of flow was available for diversion during other months.

Pagel's letter also states that the company believes the information used in the decision did not support the state's conclusion that the water license would threaten sensitive species and could lead to the loss of essential habitat for salmon and other sensitive species.

Moreover, the denial was contrary to the department's approval of a similar short-term license at the same site for the same amount of water for a seven-month period in 2013, Pagel wrote. Red Flat Nickel was unable to conduct the test drilling at that time because of delays in Forest Service review, according to the letter.

Water-resources officials have two months to consider the petition and possibly issue a permit, department spokeswoman Rachel Rancier said. The agency also could take no action and the petition would be considered denied after that 60-day period, Rancier said.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.