My Turn: Coeur Alaska gambles with jobs

Proposal to dump mine waste into a lake risky for people, environment

Posted: Sunday, January 21, 2007

The members of Southeast Alaska Conservation Council's Board of Directors understand and appreciate the importance of jobs to Alaskan families and communities because we live and work here ourselves. For 35 years, SEACC has been run by a volunteer board of Southeast Alaskans who have donated countless hours of their own time to safeguarding the integrity of Southeast Alaska's unsurpassed natural environment while encouraging the balanced and sustainable use of the region's resources.

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We do this to provide for the future of our families and the families of our children. We believe it is the duty of all Americans to leave the next generation with the same opportunities we have to enjoy clean water, a healthy environment and abundant natural resources.

Coeur Alaska recently ran an advertisement in the Juneau Empire charging that the Board of Directors of Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is risking jobs at the Kensington Mine.

Coeur's advertisement is dishonest. The jobs at the Kensington Mine are only threatened if Coeur's plan to dispose of its waste is illegal. It is Coeur's responsibility to act within the law. Unfortunately it didn't act responsibly - it gambled. It gambled by trying to be the first gold mine in a generation to propose dumping its waste into a lake. It gambled by trying to sidestep the Clean Water Act. It gambled when it decided to thumb its nose at the tremendous work Americans have done over the past 30 years to clean up our nation's waterways.

Furthermore, Coeur gambled when it chose to ignore SEACC's repeated warnings that its waste disposal design was illegal. And now, when it looks as if its reckless gamble may not pay off, it's trying to blame SEACC for its decision. We even tried talking directly with Coeur about alternatives but could not reach an agreement. The lawsuit was our last resort to ensure that this mine operated legally. Since the suit began, we have consistently asked the court to resolve the issue as quickly as possible to minimize impacts to the workers.

Coeur argues that there is no alternative to dumping its waste into Lower Slate Lake. Yet, since the passage of the Clean Water Act, mines have operated successfully across the U.S. without using lakes as waste dumps. When Coeur says there is no alternative, it means that there is no alternative that is as profitable to its investors. In 1998, Coeur had a fully permitted plan for the Kensington Mine that stored its tailings on land and not in a lake. Yet Coeur dropped this plan to look for a cheaper one. If Coeur had been willing to do it right, Juneau could have these mining jobs - and a legal mine.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is using this mine as a test case to sidestep the Clean Water Act and allow mining corporations to dump their tailings into lakes, rivers, and streams. The Kensington sets the stage for other mines across Alaska to discard their waste into our clean water - the heart and soul of our fishing, recreation and tourism industries. The Pebble Mine, for example, has already submitted plans for a waste disposal system similar to Kensington's that would affect one of the world's most productive salmon fisheries.

Coeur Alaska can expect SEACC to hold it, and any other corporation, accountable to the laws that protect Alaska's clean water. We find it extremely unfortunate that Coeur is using its employees' jobs to pressure Juneau into accepting a mine that violates the law. Instead of casting blame on others, Coeur Alaska should accept responsibility for its bad decision and redesign the mine to dispose of its tailings legally.

• Anissa Berry-Frick is the president of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council's Board of Directors and is a resident of Port Alexander.

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