Coeur Alaska, the company working to open the Kensington gold mine, has submitted an updated plan of operations to the U.S. Forest Service.
The new proposal was announced Friday by Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho, who has worked as a moderator between Coeur and environmental groups to come up with a plan to dump the mine's waste rock known as tailings in a manner suitable to both sides.
Botelho said the new proposal was an important step in getting the gold mine operational, but hardly its last.
"If you're going to talk about green light, yellow light, red light," Botelho said. "This is a yellow light."
In the new plan, tailings would be converted into a paste, mixed with concrete and sent through the mine's tunnels to Comet Beach, on Lynn Canal. The water extruded from the paste and any water that contacts it would be treated there. At top production, the mine, about 45 miles northwest of downtown Juneau, is set to process 1,250 tons of ore per day, most of which will become tailings.
It's unclear how long the permit process for the new plan will take. The Forest Service must decide whether to do an environmental impact assessment, or a much longer environmental impact statement. A Forest Service spokesman said Saturday that the agency was not yet ready to comment on the new proposal.
Coeur had received permits before to dump tailings from processed ore into Lower Slate Lake. But the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Sierra Club and Lynn Canal Conservation group won a lawsuit to halt those permits, and Coeur was forced to redo its plan.
SEACC Conservation Director Buck Lindekugel said Saturday he thought the new plan was "promising."
"It is consistent with our objectives with having this mine doing it right, protecting our clean water and protecting Berners Bay," Lindekugel said.
Similarly, Mark Rorick, chairman of the Juneau group of the Sierra Club, said he was "moderately satisfied" with the proposal.
The new plan is a success for Botelho, who has been praised by mine supporters and environmental groups for his ability to get the two sides together after an acrimonious history.
Last year Dennis Wheeler, CEO of Coeur Alaska's parent company, Coeur D'Alene Mine Corp., said the environmental groups have not always operated in good faith. And the environmental groups have panned Coeur's Lower Slate Lake plan as environmentally irresponsible.
Juneau Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cathie Roemmich, a proponent of the mine, called Friday's announcement "the first positive step we've heard for a while."
She echoed Wheeler's concerns that there was a lack of trust between supporters of the mine and environmental groups and called on SEACC and the Sierra Club to allow the mine to go forward.
"When they don't say yes outright, that's when we worry," Roemmich said.
But Lindekugel said the new plan still needs to be vetted by various state and federal agencies and he didn't want to "pre-judge the process."
"We haven't looked at the details of this option yet," Lindekugel said. "When we go through that we'll address any concerns that arise."
Both sides, however, agreed the mayor was instrumental in moving the process forward.
"The reality of the situation is: These talks wouldn't have happened without the mayor," Lindekugel said.
For his part, Botelho said he was just responding to the demands of the community to get two sides talking. He said he thought having Kensington fully operational would not only mean an influx in high-paying jobs to the area but also would be symbolically beneficial to the city.
"[It's] a shot in the arm, in terms of people's confidence in Juneau's future," Botelho said.
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