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Forest Service approves drilling above Spearfish Canyon

SPEARFISH, S.D. – A federal agency has provisionally approved a company’s plan to conduct exploratory drilling for gold above Spearfish Canyon.

The company is Colorado-based Solitario Resources. Project maps show some of the proposed drill sites are less than a mile back from the canyon rim in the Black Hills National Forest, about 15 miles southwest of Spearfish.

“None of the proposed drill sites are located in Spearfish Canyon,” says a draft decision issued  by the U.S. Forest Service.

The bottom of the canyon in that area is a popular spot, with attractions including Roughlock Falls, Spearfish Falls, Spearfish Canyon Lodge and the Latchstring Restaurant.

Opponents of the drilling, including the nonprofit Black Hills Clean Water Alliance, immediately condemned the draft decision.

“Not only does this project pose a serious risk to water quality in Lawrence County — including Spearfish Creek — it would also disrupt wildlife, add to our worsening air quality issues, and directly interrupt the recreation and tourism industry in our area,” the alliance said on its website.

Solitario President and CEO Chris Herald praised the draft decision.

“Our proposed drilling program was carefully planned with all drilling activities situated on previously disturbed areas of past timber harvesting,” Herald said in a news release. “Several additional administrative steps remain before final permit decisions will be forthcoming; however, we consider this decision to be the most important milestone before final approval.”

map of gold drilling black hills south dakota
A yellow box shows the area where Solitario Resources plans to conduct exploratory drilling for gold above Spearfish Canyon. (Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service)

The additional administrative steps include an objection period. The Forest Service received hundreds of written public comments while reviewing the project. Those commenters now have 45 days to file objections to the draft decision, which the Forest Service will review before issuing a final decision.

The draft decision from the Forest Service says that based on an environmental assessment, the project “will not significantly impact the human environment.” The notice says a more comprehensive environmental impact statement will therefore not be prepared.

“The statutory right of Solitario to explore mineral resources on federally administered lands is recognized by the General Mining Law of 1872,” the draft decision notes. That law says mineral deposits on federal public land are open to exploration.

The Forest Service can impose restrictions to minimize disruptions to people, wildlife, the environment and cultural or archaeological resources, and the draft decision includes many such mitigation measures. The company would also be required to restore the drilling sites to a natural-looking condition.

Solitario’s plan includes up to 25 drill sites. Drill holes would average 1,300 feet in depth, and there would be 27 months of drilling, mostly from spring to fall, spread across five years. The company would examine core samples from the drilling program to determine whether there’s enough economically recoverable gold to support a mine.

The company is one of several proposing gold exploration or already exploring for gold in the Black Hills, where exploration and mining have been continuously conducted since the 1870s.

The industry has brought jobs and economic growth, but also environmental damage. Before modern environmental regulations, the former Homestake Mine in Lead dumped so much pollution into Whitewood Creek that the waterway became colloquially known as Cyanide Creek. Another former gold mine, the Gilt Edge near Lead, has been the site of a cleanup funded by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund for more than 20 years since the mine was abandoned after its owner went bankrupt.

The only active, large-scale gold mine in the Black Hills is the Wharf Mine, near Lead and Terry Peak. The Wharf Mine’s owner, Chicago-based Coeur Mining, received permission last summer from state regulators to expand.

Lithium has also become a sought-after mineral in the Black Hills, with companies staking claims and exploring for deposits to mine for use in the batteries that power electric vehicles and other devices.

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