Michael McGinnis, the chief geologist fort Paramount Gold Nevada's Grassy Mountain mine project, shows a rock sample sliced apart by a diamond drill. In the past two years, Paramount has drilled 200 holes in the Grassy Mountain area to take rock samples. (The Enterprise/File).

VALE – Two conservation groups want the county to put the brakes on two permits for a proposed mining operation 22 miles south of town.

Calico Resources USA Corp. applied for a county land use permit last month but the Oregon Natural Desert Association and the 1000 Friends of Oregon said the project puts wildlife at risk. They asked the county to hold off on approving the permits for the Grassy Mountain mine.

Calico Resources USA Corp.’s parent company – Paramount Gold Nevada Corp. – plans to build a gold and silver mining complex on three claims at Grassy Mountain southwest of Vale.

While most of the high desert at Grassy Mountain is under federal and state control, a small portion – 62 acres designated as range land – is under county control.

Calico Resources has asked the Malheur County Planning Commission for zoning and a sage grouse permit for the 62-acre parcel. The parcel is key for the project because it includes the main entry into the mine. The planning commission, though, will only decide on the land use permit while the Malheur County Court will settle the sage grouse permit.

Paramount Gold is wading through an extensive permitting process with state and federal agencies and the zoning and sage grouse permit from the county is a crucial step.

In March, the county planning department urged the commission to approve both permits. The two conservation groups in a joint, 21-page letter to the commission explained why that was a bad idea. The letter, crafted by Dan Morse, conservation director for the Oregon Natural Desert Association and Meriel Darzen, 1000 Friends of Oregon, asserts the two permits aren’t complete.

“The project, including activities on the patent parcel, will cause detrimental and permanent harm to fish and wildlife from long-term habitat modification and loss as well as impact from proposed mine project activities,” wrote Morse and Darzen.

Morse and Darzen contend the “application mischaracterizes sage grouse habitat” in the area.

The conservation groups asserted that impacts to sage grouse must be considered for the entire project, not just the 62-acre parcel that is part of the county application. The conservation groups also pointed out the land use application fails to consider potential impacts to big game winter range and “downplays potential effects on pygmy rabbits and their habitat.”

The mining operation was also called into question because the land use application “does not disclose any information about the potential effects of cyanide leach chemical process mining.”

Corie Harlan, Owyhee coordinator for the desert association, said it was important to slow down the application process.

“We want to make sure the people of Malheur County have a clear idea of what this impact is going to be,” said Harlan.

The potential influence of the mine operation on groundwater is particularly concerning, said Harlan.

“No one knows what is happening with that groundwater, which way it is going and there is a lack of clarity if something would happen, which body of water would it ultimately affect,” said Harlan.

Harlan said there are “a lot more questions that need to be answered to help us understand what are the impacts of this mine.”

Portland attorney Garrett Stephenson, who represents Calico Resources, said a green light from the planning commission doesn’t mean mining would begin.

In an email to the Enterprise, Stephenson said most of the concerns raised by the two environmental groups would be addressed through the ongoing federal and state permitting process. Stephenson wrote that a host of agencies must sign off on the mine plan before dirt is moved.

“Like the county’s land use review, each of these agencies has its own subject matter focus and related regulations addressing each of the ONDA and 1000 Friends’ concerns, and ONDA is simply wrong in arguing that the county is obligated to evaluate the same issues that these other agencies are tasked with evaluating,” wrote Stephenson.

Stephenson also wrote the concerns about sage grouse would be tackled by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Stephenson wrote there are no sage grouse within the 62-acre parcel under review by the county.

The planning commission will review the permit issue at its April 25 meeting. Eric Evans, planning director, said the commission can deny the land use permit, approve it or ask for amendments. Plans at Grassy Mountain call for mineshafts about 13 feet tall up to 15 feet wide that zigzag down 35 levels more than 700 feet under the desert.  Paramount plans to use a “carbon in leach” process to separate silver and gold from ore at Grassy Mountain. In this process cyanide solution dissolves the gold and silver from the rock. The company said previously the leaching process would be done inside tanks in an enclosed processing plant.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 431-473-3377.

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