T he Kensington Gold Mine has been in the environmental baseline, planning, design and YES, construction phase, since 1988 when I first came to Juneau to work on the project. Its developer, Coeur Alaska, Inc., has advanced the project carefully and diligently. Coeur d'Alene Mines as a company has received more than two dozen national and international environmental and reclamation awards in the last 20 years and has applied the same high environmental standards to this 1.4 million-ounce reserve gold project located north of Juneau.
The facts are that since 1992, the project has undergone three substantive redesigns. Each time the project has been made smaller and better environmentally. Its land disturbance "footprint" has shrunk from over 300 acres involving a 300-feet high, 250-acre tailings dam using a cyanide recovery process on-site to a 20-acre tailings storage site designed to store benign flotation tailings. The plan was crafted to restore a small unproductive lake to a 60-acre productive fishery at closure. The net loss of wetlands has been reduced from over 160 acres to 3.5 acres. Its carbon footprint has been reduced from a project using over 6.5 million gallons of diesel fuel annually to less than 3 million gallons per year through environmentally thoughtful and economic optimization.
For the life of the project, Dennis E. Wheeler, CEO and chairman, and the entire Coeur workforce have strived to make the Kensington Mine an environmental showcase. Commercial fishing interests in Southeast Alaska have praised the project's changes and its "environmental design," as have Native subsistence supporters. It has employed up to 450 locals during construction with $80,000 a year high-paying, year-round jobs, nearly 200 of which were Native-affiliated. It has done what is right, following the rules at every point in a very rigorous EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permitting process, all done under the umbrella of three major environmental impact statements prepared by the U.S. Forest Service. The State of Alaska regulatory agencies further designated the current tailings alternative as being "environmentally preferred." To date, some $250 million has been spent on the project, much of that in wages and taxes in the region.
It is currently estimated that the 11th hour litigation brought during the late stages of construction by the Sierra Club and two local groups, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and Lynn Canal Conservation, has cost the local economy an estimated $85 to 90 million in lost wages and taxes since an injunction was issued by the San Francisco-based U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals nearly 30 months ago. This loss, in an area where rural, Native unemployment for families averages 62 percent, has been particularly hard-felt. Now they have announced they will seek legislation to "over-step" a favorable Supreme Court decision for Coeur, the State of Alaska, the Department of Justice and Goldbelt.
On Jan. 12, 2009, the U. S. Supreme Court heard Coeur's appeal, with the U.S. Department of Justice's Solicitor General leading the argument for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Forest Service, along with Theodore Olson of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, who represented Coeur. These parties are also supported by the State of Alaska, Goldbelt Native Corporation, the National Mining Association, the National Homebuilders Association and others. We are confident that our attorneys presented the very best argument.
The facts are that Coeur seeks to have its corps 404 permit re-instated, to complete construction of the environmentally preferred tailings facility, and begin production at an award-winning mine that employs more than 375 direct and indirect jobs for Southeast Alaskans. This is an economic stimulus package that requires no federal bail-out. Coeur seeks to place treated, inert tailings fill into the engineered facility and then discharge treated water from the facility into a nearby stream, which meets all water quality standards and is actually cleaner than Lower Slate Lake's natural chemistry.
Since the beginning, Coeur has sought to do what's right at Kensington. They will continue this path until Alaskans are put back to work, the resource is responsibly mined, and the facilities are fully reclimed and enhanced.
Whose interests are the environmental groups truly serving? Are they really out for the best environmental plan, or the interests of Alaska and its residents?
Rick Richins is a consultant for Coeur Alaska.
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