Four new plans of operation for exploratory gold drilling have been submitted to the Black Hills National Forest, according to a forest official.
Deputy Forest Supervisor Jerry Krueger declined to immediately release any specific details of the plans, such as the names of the companies, locations of the proposed drilling sites, or the proposed acreage of the drilling projects. He did say that all of the proposed projects are in the Mystic District, the most central of the four districts in the forest.
Krueger said the plans of operation are considered confidential for now, until they are formally accepted for review. After that happens — in about a month or so, Krueger estimated — a public review process will begin with opportunities for public comment and consultation with Native American tribes that have ties to the Black Hills.
“Given the controversy around mining, we’re going to make sure we dot our i’s and cross our t’s,” Krueger said.
In addition to the four newly submitted plans of operation, forest officials are still considering a plan of operation for exploratory gold drilling near Rochford that was submitted in late 2016 by Mineral Mountain Resources, a Canadian company with a South Dakota subsidiary of the same name.
Krueger said forest officials have decided to require an environmental assessment of the proposed Mineral Mountain project, and negotiations are under way to determine how the assessment will be funded.
Mineral Mountain’s plan of operations includes 21 proposed drilling sites on national forest land located 2 to 3 miles south of Rochford.
Meanwhile, on neighboring privately owned land, Mineral Mountain has already drilled at least nine exploratory holes since February. That drilling is authorized by an exploration notice of intent filed with the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources, for as many as 10 holes at each of 12 drilling sites for a potential total of 120 holes.
The Rochford-area drilling has sparked protests and legal challenges from neighboring landowners, environmentalists, and Native Americans for whom the Black Hills hold spiritual significance.
In the latest challenge to Mineral Mountain, a group of individual opponents is seeking a declaratory ruling by the state Water Management Board that would essentially invalidate temporary water permits such as the one granted by the state to the company. The permit allows Mineral Mountain to withdraw free water from Rapid Creek, which the company uses to cool and lubricate its drill.
A hearing on the request for the declaratory ruling is scheduled for Dec. 5 in Pierre, but it is unclear what effect, if any, the outcome of the hearing will have on Mineral Mountain’s project. There has been no drilling since the project’s ninth hole was plugged with bentonite in September, and the company’s existing temporary water permit is scheduled to expire after Dec. 31.
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The company has had multiple temporary permits to withdraw water from Rapid Creek. During a period when Mineral Mountain lacked a temporary water permit, the company purchased water from the city of Lead and had the water hauled to the drilling sites.
State officials have indicated that if Mineral Mountain wants to continue using water from Rapid Creek after the expiration of the company’s current temporary permit, the company might be directed to apply for a permanent water right. That would entail a lengthier consideration process with more opportunities for public comment.
The first nine exploratory holes drilled by Mineral Mountain into the rocky and forested terrain near Rochford averaged about 1,000 feet in length. In an Oct. 1 news release, Mineral Mountain President and CEO Nelson Baker said results from the first nine holes solidified the company's belief that it will find a significant gold deposit.
State and federal mining laws are permissive toward exploratory drilling. No permit is required. Drillers need only file a plan of operations for federal land and an exploration notice of intent with the state, after which federal and state regulators can place conditions and restrictions on the drilling but cannot summarily reject it.
Gary Haag, a geologist with the Black Hills National Forest, has said of the Mineral Mountain plan of operations, “There isn’t an option to turn it down.”
If Mineral Mountain or any other company decides to pursue the opening of a gold mine, permits would be required.
Gold mining has occurred in the Black Hills since the 1870s. Currently, the region’s only active, large-scale gold mine is the Wharf Mine near Terry Peak and Lead, where $125.9 million worth of gold and silver were mined last year.
At the abandoned Gilt Edge Mine about 5 miles southeast of Lead, which has been the site of an EPA Superfund environmental cleanup for nearly two decades, EPA officials recently decided to allow a Canadian company, Agnico Eagle Mines, to drill up to 18 holes in search of the source of cadmium contamination showing up in Strawberry Creek. During the drilling, Agnico will be allowed to take core samples to help the company decide whether it will seek permission to re-open the mine.
The increased exploratory drilling activity in the Black Hills is part of a global trend, according to a “World Exploration Trends” report published in March by S&P Global Market Intelligence. The report said global spending on the search for nonferrous metals rose to an estimated $8.4 billion in 2017 compared to $7.3 billion in 2016.
The report cited greater support from investors for exploratory projects and a generally positive trend in metals prices as reasons for the increased spending. For 2018, the report predicted a 15 to 20 percent increase in global exploration spending.