Until recently, as other states, to the dismay of environmentalists, cashed in on their natural resources like coal, precious minerals and underground oil fields, Oregon seemed quietly removed from such industries and debates. But suddenly, Oregon is in the fray, with several major projects to extract and ship natural resources in the works: For the first time in years, Oregon is facing the prospect of a commercial gold mine (along the Idaho border); this proposal is joined by a proposal from an Australian company for a uranium mine also near the Idaho border; and, as if that weren't enough, already train shipments of coal and oil have begun making their way along the Columbia Gorge, with more to come unless environmentalists can stop that plan in its tracks.
While the state isn't in line for any massive coal mines or fracking just yet (Oregon has some coal beds around Coos Bay and in Wallowa County, as well as some natural gas wells), already there is increased activity around shipping these controversial materials. Throughout the United States, coal trains and oil trains are on the rise. Bloomberg Businessweek says the amount of U.S. crude oil being moved by railroads has increased 166 percent in the past 12 months, a trend mirrored in the Pacific Northwest; according to a Sightline Institute report, "in Oregon and Washington, 11 refineries and port terminals are planning, building or already operating oil-by-rail shipments." If proposed coal export terminals in Boardman, Ore., and Longview, Wash., go through, railroad tracks along the Gorge would start carrying oil from fracking in the North Dakota fields as well as carrying more coal trains loaded with Powder River Basin coal. The irony here, especially in view of the July 5 oil train explosion in Canada that is estimated to have killed as many as 50 people, is that coal dust that can blow off trains makes the ballast rock under the tracks less stable. BNSF Railway itself calls fugitive coal dust "a serious threat to the stability of the track structure." Proposed coal train tracks to Boardman run through the upper east side of the state.
Meanwhile, other companies are looking to Eastern Oregon to mine for gold. Calico Resources, a Canadian company, is working on an underground gold mine called Grassy Mountain in Malheur County, approximately 25 miles south-southwest of Vale. The Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) announced in March that Calico's "baseline data collection methodologies" that would study the pre-mine conditions for environmental, economic and cultural resources had been approved.
Gary Lynch, assistant director of DOGAMI's Mineral Land Regulation and Reclamation Program, said at the time, "This is a significant milestone in the Oregon chemical process mine permitting regulations, and Calico is the first company in Oregon to proceed this far in the Oregon permitting process."
Chris Hansen of the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) tells the Source that the group is troubled by the lack of consultation that Calico is having with public lands managers. He says the company has failed to engage the BLM and public lands managers in a meaningful way. He adds that "there are going to be impacts to public land and public waters" around the mine, including transmission lines, public waterways and widening of the roads. He says this lack of public process is particularly troubling given the mine's proximity to the Owyhee Canyonlands, which he calls a "national treasure."
Hansen also says an underground mine falls under different statutes than would an aboveground mine with cyanide leaching. But he asks, "Once they start mining, what's going to keep them from expanding and making this an open pit mine?"
And this question is not just a hypothetical. In fact, another overseas company, Oregon Energy (a subsidiary of the Australian company Energy Ventures), is actually proposing an open pit mine—a uranium mine—also in Malheur County, and on BLM lands three miles north of the Nevada border near the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes' reservation. The Aurora mine is listed on a DOGAMI mining spreadsheet as permitted for exploration, and the Oregon Energy calls Aurora its "most advanced project." The area is core sage grouse habitat, Hansen says, and DOGAMI said in a governing board meeting that sage grouse issues have slowed the project down. Oregon Energy filed a notice of intent to submit a facility license application for a uranium processing facility in 2012 that says it expects to file for the actual license at the end of 2013.