My turn: Coeur proposes 'doing it right'

Posted: Wednesday, January 10, 2007

After long ignoring the matter, I decided to take a look at the lawsuit that the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and the Sierra Club brought against the Kensington Mine. This is one really stupid lawsuit. Because the advertisements and bumper sticker-style journalism are uninformative, I will take a shot a explaining it to regular folks. Here's what Coeur is doing and what SEACC doesn't like:

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• Coeur has permits to build a mill, camp, roads, settling ponds, etc. SEACC hasn't challenged these - and in fact these have already been built-or mostly built.

• Coeur has all the approvals it needs to dig a tunnel from Berner's Bay to Lynn Canal. SEACC hasn't challenged that and the tunnel is well underway.

• Coeur has permits to clear around a proposed tailings facility at Lower Slate Lake, to construct a bypass ditch, to build a dam and to drain the lake. Believe it or not, SEACC hasn't challenged this. In fact, all of these things have already been done or partly done and Lower Slate Lake retains not one iota of recreational or aesthetic value. And it won't recover for many years. SEACC could have asked for an injunction to stop this, but it didn't. After the damage was done, SEACC finally asked for and received an injunction, but then it was too late. (They might not have gotten this injunction if Coeur's hapless lawyers hadn't missed an appeal deadline.)

• Coeur has a permit to fill Lower Slate Lake with mine tailings. Hold on to your hats - SEACC hasn't challenged this.

• Coeur has an Environmental Protection Agency permit to discharge treated wastewater into Slate Creek below Lower Slate Lake, and then into Berner's Bay. Are you sitting down? SEACC hasn't challenged this.

What in the world has SEACC challenged then? I'll try to explain. SEACC challenged the method of placement of the tailings into the Lower Slate Lake treatment facility using a slurry. It has maintained that the tailings must be placed dry. If they are placed "wet" then, under a technicality, EPA should issue another permit, but the law precludes it from doing so. SEACC alleges a violation of the Clean Water Act.

SEACC didn't sue the EPA for not issuing the permit or issuing a permit in the wrong place. Instead it sued the Corps of Engineers for failing to demand the missing EPA approval. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is mulling that over now and will decide pretty soon.

So why can't Coeur put in a machine to make the tailings dry - it's called a filter plant - and use a conveyor belt to dump them into the already logged and drained basin of the former Lower Slate Lake? It's expensive, but I don't see why not. What would SEACC have accomplished then?

Everything would look the same except there would be some conveyor belts and perhaps some bulldozers pushing stuff around. That's dry tailings - the thing that SEACC says it wants. You know, "do it right, Kensington." To the uninitiated, it looks exactly like what they are challenging. What's the point?

What SEACC is asking for is like saying that because of a technicality, the EPA shouldn't regulate sewage at the Mendenhall River mixing zone, but should regulate your toilet. Is the point just disruption?

I'm not a professional environmentalist, but if I were, I'd want to have some work and a cause that will raise money to pay my salary. I can't say that's the reason. There may be other reasons, but they don't occur to me now.

Or perhaps SEACC wants to use the legal process to delay or kill the mine. They always say, "no, we just want Coeur to 'do it right.' "

But as we have seen, the ordinary person would see that "doing it right" looks just like what Coeur has proposed. And as we have also seen, most of what regular people consider damage has already been done - and SEACC didn't lift a finger. This suggests that SEACC doesn't care about the environment. Perhaps it is just looking to put another notch in its gun.

Juneau doesn't need this. Now is the time for SEACC to drop this really stupid lawsuit.

• Eric Twelker is a Juneau attorney.



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