On The Lake: ‘Does anyone else think that drilling for silica in the Lake Pend Oreille watershed is a terrible idea?’

By Shannon Williamson
Reader Columnist

As some of you may have read in the Bee earlier this month, a Montana-based company called Pend Oreille Silica Inc. is looking to do some exploratory drilling on lands managed by the Idaho Panhandle National Forests (IPNF). These lands, also known as the Green Mountain Silica Deposit, happen to be located on steep terrain that drains to Lake Pend Oreille, south of Cedar Creek, along the eastern shore. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Shannon Williamson.

The District Ranger made a preliminary assessment of the request and felt that the proposed actions “do not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the quality of the human environment and, therefore, may be categorically excluded from documentation in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or Environmental Assessment (EA).” Um, no.

Granted, the footprint of the proposed drill site seems small in scope. One could argue that drilling down to a max depth of 200 feet from an 80X30 foot drill pad is nothing to get all panicky over. But wait – there’s more! The total claims area is 640 acres with an additional 1,700 acres that are ready for staking/claiming. The combined area is supposedly home to a whopping 21 MILLION TONS of high-purity silica. If exploration proves fruitful, we could be looking at a big ol’ silica mine in the midst of the Lake Pend Oreille watershed. Let’s pump the brakes, shall we?

We definitely had something to say about this, and for anyone that knows me, this should come as no surprise. Through the public comment process, we strongly urged the District Ranger to reconsider its Categorical Exclusion (CE) for the Green Mountain project and undertake a draft EA instead. Our request isn’t just a “pretty please with sugar on top” – it’s grounded in years of regulatory and case law.

Through our comments, we demonstrated that the proposed project possesses potentially significant direct and cumulative effects, impacts that the Service has so far failed to meaningfully analyze contrary to clear requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLMPA), and the National Forestry Management Act (NFMA).

I’ll spare you all the details that most people find yawn-inducing (unless you’re a total policy wonk like me). Suffice it to say that we made a defensibly strong argument for doing the right thing, which is ditching the CE and going for the EA instead.  And when I say “the right thing”, I mean “what’s required by law”. It just sounds more pleasant the other way.

A mine of this size has the very real potential to cause significant harm to the watershed, and we just can’t have that. Whether this proposal has anything to do with the proposed HiTest silica smelter over in Newport or not (oddly coincidental?), we’ll be watching how this particular project unfolds very closely. It’s a NO to the CE and a YES to the EA. That was the last acronym. I swear!

Shannon Williamson is the executive director of Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper and president of the Sandpoint City Council.

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