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Drillers win draft approval to explore for gold near Pactola Reservoir in Black Hills

The Pactola Reservoir in the Black Hills.
The Pactola Reservoir in the Black Hills.

A draft decision from the U.S. Forest Service would allow a Minnesota company to conduct exploratory drilling for gold within a half-mile of the Pactola Reservoir in South Dakota's Black Hills.

Minneapolis-based F3 Gold has been seeking approval of its drilling plan for several years. The affected land is publicly owned by the federal government in the Black Hills National Forest.

The Forest Service issued a final environmental assessment and a draft decision this week that would allow the drilling to go ahead under numerous restrictions designed to protect water, cultural sites and other natural resources.

The draft decision is subject to a 45-day objection period, during which anyone who previously submitted official comments on the proposal may submit objections to the draft decision. After that, the Forest Service will take the objections into consideration before issuing a final decision.

A representative for F3 Gold said company executives were not immediately available for an interview, but the company issued a press release. The release did not say when the company hopes to start drilling.

A statement in the release from F3 Gold Vice President Brian Lentz said, in part, "After an exhaustive, multi-year process atypical for a small-scale exploration drilling project, we are pleased that we are finally getting our permit."

The Forest Service draft decision would allow for 47 drilling pads totaling 3.3 acres, plus an assortment of roads and trails to access the pads. The proposed pad locations are near Jenny Gulch, just north of the small settlement of Silver City and also just north of the gulch's outlet into the Pactola Reservoir.

The draft decision is from Jim Gubbels, the Mystic District ranger in the Black Hills National Forest. The decision includes several changes to F3's plan of operations, including moving some drill pads to protect water, wildlife, and potential cultural and archaeological sites. The company will be required to plug its drilling holes and return all disturbed areas to natural-looking conditions.

An opponent to the project said the Forest Service's draft decision "is not unexpected, but is still disappointing."

Lilias Jarding of the Black Hills Clean Water Alliance said exploratory drilling could eventually lead to a gold mine. And she said a mine could pollute the Pactola Reservoir, which is a deep, man-made mountain lake functioning not only as a popular recreational destination but also as a storage reservoir for water systems including the city of Rapid City.

"There's only one reason to explore for gold, and that is they hope to find gold and mine it," Jarding said.

Historical gold mining was a polluter of Black Hills waterways. Whitewood Creek in the northern Black Hills was formerly so polluted with thick, gray sludge and chemicals from mining that it was known as "Cyanide Creek."

Gold has been mined continuously in the Black Hills since the 1870s. The Homestake mine near Lead was once the largest and deepest gold mine in North America before it closed in 2002.

There is currently one large-scale, active gold mine in the Black Hills — the Wharf Mine, also near Lead. Besides F3 Gold, there are several other companies either drilling or planning to conduct exploratory drilling for gold in the Black Hills.

Seth supervises SDPB's beat reporters and newscast team. He works at SDPB's Black Hills Studio in Rapid City.