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Coeur Alaska's gold mine in Berners Bay has, like all hardrock mining ventures, a challenging waste disposal problem: what to do with the 99.9 percent of the gold-bearing rock that doesn't contain gold. After ditching plans to dump their mine waste into Lynn Canal and on National Forest wetlands, Coeur's recently approved mining plan allows the company to dispose of 4.5 million tons of mine waste - enough to fill 13 Wal-Mart Superstores - into Lower Slate Lake, a pristine water body on public lands near Berners Bay.
In case you're thinking the filling of a lake with mine waste might be against some kind of federal law, you're right. It's called the Clean Water Act, and for more than 30 years this landmark law has prohibited the dumping of mine waste - categorized as a "pollutant" - into water bodies. How can a company touting its environmentally sensitive mine all over the newspaper and airwaves get away with polluting a lake? It turns out the Army Corps of Engineers has recently reclassified mine waste as "fill" instead of a pollutant. Now, Coeur need only apply for a permit to fill Lower Slate Lake with mining waste. And in a move that defies logic, the water leaving the lake will be regulated as a pollutant under the Clean Water Act. Fill in, pollution out. Something smells fishy and it's not the lake's Dolly Varden, which will certainly die.
Coeur Alaska should not be allowed to dump their waste into Lower Slate Lake. It not only will kill all aquatic life, but will seriously undermine the intent of the Clean Water Act by giving the mining industry legal precedent to turn our lakes and streams into mine waste storage facilities. It's time for Coeur and the gold mining industry to face up to their wasteful ways. Hiding mine waste underwater doesn't make it go away.