KETCHIKAN — Exploration work at a southeast Alaska mine is being delayed by a federal court ruling last month in a California lawsuit filed against the U.S. Forest Service.
Hecla Greens Creek Mine is being held up in its plans to spend $4 million expanding known reserves on Admiralty Island and its exploration is one of about 600 projects across the nation affected by the lawsuit.
The Ketchikan Daily News reports the lawsuit challenged 2003 regulations by the USFS that exempted public notice, comment and appeal requirements on projects deemed to have no significant environmental impact. The no-significant-impact determination allowed the agency to issue permits under “categorical exclusion” rules. Most Forest Service permitting decisions are made under categorical exclusion rules.
U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence O’Neill on March 19 sided with eight environmental groups that sued.
“The court in California issued a nationwide injunction which immediately restores the public’s rights to be informed and participate in the management of all projects on the national forests,” said Rene Voss, an attorney for the groups, after the decision was announced.
The decision affects all Forest Service categorical exclusion processes that had not been completed.
Tongass National Forest spokeswoman Erin Uloth said the basic permitting process remains intact but there’s now a comment and appeal period, which can lengthen the process by up to 135 days.
The development could jeopardize Hecla’s 2012 surface exploration season, a spokesman said. The company relies on weather-dependent helicopters instead of roads for minimal environment impact.
“We were getting all geared up, ready to start letting contracts and everything else,” said Hecla general manager Scott Hartman. “The court case, it pretty much put the hold on everything.”
The Forest Service published the legal notice for Hecla’s project April 8, starting a 30-day public comment period.
“Certainly, if this drags on very long, it will be late enough in the season that it will be a very tough decision to make as to whether or not it makes sense — or whether those resources are available,” Hartman said. “The helicopter contractors, the drilling contractors, they’ve got to line up their business as well. They can’t just sit around and wait.”
Greens Creek started in 1989 with an estimated life of 10 years and steady exploration work has doubled that, Hartman said
“We’ve basically had roughly a 10-year mine life for 20 years,” Hartman said. “And the way you sustain that mine life is through systematic and sustained exploration efforts, both underground and on the surface. And we’ve poured millions (of dollars) and lots of resources into those programs over the years.”