Unease dogs silica drilling proposal

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Kevin Kensek, a minerals and geology program manager for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests, takes questions from the audience at a meeting on the Green Mountain silica drilling proposal on Thursday. (Photo by KEITH KINNAIRD)

SANDPOINT — Unease continues to orbit a proposal to conduct exploratory drilling for silica near Green Mountain.

More than 40 people attended a meeting Thursday hosted by the U.S. Forest Service to parse through a Montana company’s plan to determine the characteristics of the mineral deposit.

Forest Service officials emphasized that exploratory drilling does not mean a mine will be developed to extract silica.

“One does not equal the other necessarily, and frankly it’s quite the opposite,” said Kevin Knesek, manager of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests minerals and geology program.

Pend Oreille Silica Inc. is seeking agency approval to create a 80-foot by 30-foot drill pad on the northeast side of Green Mountain. Two holes 6 inches in diameter would be driven up to 200 feet. The exploration would be accomplished with a truck-mounted core drilling rig.

The company intends to conduct the drilling over a two-week period over the summer, although Forest Service officials said it’s unclear if its analysis will be completed in time to allow that to happen.

The drilling proposal coincides with a Canadian company’s efforts to develop a silicon smelter near Newport, which has provoked intense opposition on both sides of the state line. However, Sandpoint District Ranger Erick Walker said the proposals are not linked to one another at this time.

“There’s no direct connection,” Walker said, referring to the Hi-Test Sands smelter proposal.

The limited scope of the project prompted the Forest Service to categorical exclude it from analyses under a National Environmental Policy Act impact statement or an environmental analysis. However, those analyses are expected if Pend Oreille Silica seeks to conduct more drilling or develop a mine.

Lake Pend Oreille Water Keeper Executive Director Shannon Williamson argued that several other federal laws, including the National Forest Management Act, require a hard-look analysis of the drilling under NEPA.

“This could escalate into a full-blown silica mine,” said Williamson.

Walker disagreed that the drilling fell outside of a categorical exclusion and added that Pend Oreille Silica has not stated it intends to develop a mine.

Pend Oreille Silica officials were invited to take part in the meeting, although they elected not to, according to the Forest Service.

“I’m kind of surprised they’re not here to advocate for their own proposal,” said Brad Smith of the Idaho Conservation League.

Courtney Priddy of the Sandpoint Ranger District said exploratory drilling was conducted in the 1980s. The drill site, if approved, would not be visible from Lake Pend Oreille and an array of best management practices would be implemented to guard against wildfire and hazardous material spills. The site would be restored after the drilling is completed.

That data from the 1980s will be paired with the newer data to determine if there’s material of sufficient quantity and quality that can be efficiently extracted.

The merchantability of the end-use of the mineral will also be factored into the analysis, according to Knesek.

The deadline to submit public comments on the drilling proposal has been extended to Feb. 26. Comments can be directed to the INPF Supervisor’s Office, 3815 Schreiber Way, Coeur d’Alene, ID. 83815. They can also be emailed to comments-northern-idpanhandle-sandpoint@fs.fed.us

Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at kkinnaird@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.

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