The clear, flowing Smith River is a life force in the northern corner of California, where the locals keep a sharp eye out for threats to the pristine water and thriving fish.
That would explain why the folk who live along the river in Del Norte County nearly jumped out of their britches when they learned about a proposed nickel mine along a major tributary of the Smith, the last major river without a dam left in the state.
A London mining company has applied to the U.S. Forest Service to begin exploratory drilling over thousands of acres of forest lands, including Baldface Creek, in Curry County, Ore., which flows into the Smith and helps maintain one of the most abundant natural salmon runs in California.
Steelhead trout, chinook and coho salmon spawn in both Baldface Creek and Smith, a National Wild and Scenic River that also provides Crescent City and the surrounding communities with drinking water.
“Locating a strip mine in the headwaters of the wild and scenic Smith River is like putting ice cubes made with toxic waste in your favorite drink,” said Grant Werschkull, the executive director of the Smith River Alliance, in Crescent City. “It’s completely outrageous.”
Toxic pollutants known
Nickel mining is well known for leaving environmental scars, including several superfund sites. This type of hard rock mining is the largest source of toxic pollution in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The proposal by the Red Flat Nickel Corp. is to begin drilling above Baldface Creek southeast of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the Klamath Mountains of southwest Oregon to determine whether a full-scale mining operation would be economically feasible. It is one of several large mining claims by the company on nearly 10,000 acres of sensitive watershed lands in the area, including a connected tributary called Rough and Ready Creek, which flows in the opposite direction from Baldface into the Illinois River.
An attorney representing Red Flat could not be reached for comment, but federal officials said construction of a mine is still a long way off.
Sets off ruckus
“It’s a plan of operation for exploratory drilling,” said Virginia Gibbons, the spokeswoman for the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest, the land management agency in charge of the process. “It doesn’t mean there is going to be a mine there.”
The plan has nevertheless created a major ruckus among politicians, homeowners, fishermen, environmental groups and American Indian tribes, who have all expressed major concerns about the proposal.
Environmentalists fear toxic runoff just across the state line will pollute downstream locations, including the Smith River National Recreation Area and Redwood National and State Parks.
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