My Turn: Don't gamble with Berners Bay

Impoundment dams do fail, and when they do the consequences are severe

Posted: Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Berners Bay's value goes well beyond Kensington Mine's gold reserves.

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The bay has been designated an Aquatic Resource of National Importance by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Its rivers provide spawning habitat for four species of wild Alaska salmon, and, during the spring herring and hooligan runs, the bay hosts whales, seals, tens of thousands of shorebirds and the second-largest congregation of bald eagles in North America. Additionally, more than 900 Steller sea lions have been observed feeding cooperatively in the springtime.

Slate Creek Cove provides winter shelter for Lynn Canal herring, and hooligan spawn adjacent to the cove. The lower reaches of Slate Creek provide spawning and rearing habitat for salmon.

The bay's uplands are home to brown and black bears, wolves, moose and mountain goats.

Berners Bay also is a favorite destination for fishing, kayaking, bird-watching, whale watching, air boating and camping and is increasingly important for commercial tourism.

In the long term, these values are more important than 10 to 15 years of gold extraction. If properly protected, the economic values dependent on the health and quality of Juneau's surrounding ecosystem will sustain our community far into the future.

Coeur Alaska claims to be protecting Berners Bay while at the same time it's planning to dump millions of tons of chemically treated mine waste and water behind a dam perched a short distance above Slate Creek Cove. This dam would be in an earthquake zone, and it would have to be built to last. This dam would be constructed for a purpose that conservationists have been saying for years is illegal under the Clean Water Act. The fact is impoundment dams do fail, and when they do the consequences are severe. (See "Montana dams show folly of dumping tailings" by Matt Clifford in Feb. 16, 2006, Juneau Empire.)

Coeur also claims its project will protect water quality. It claims this in spite of having repeated violations of water-quality standards before the mine even comes on line. And there is the larger question of the reliability of Coeur's studies that predict future water quality.

A recently released peer-reviewed study compared predicted water quality with actual water quality at hard rock mines ("Predicting Water Quality at Hard Rock Mines: A Failure of Science, Oversight and Good Practice," Maest, Kuipers, 2006). Looking at 100 U.S. mines, the authors found that 100 percent of the mines predicted compliance with water-quality standards but 76 percent actually breached those standards. Mitigation measures designed to protect water-quality standards failed at 64 percent of the 25 mines studied in detail.

The authors also addressed the reasons for the failure of the industry's water-quality models. Foremost among the reasons is that, as in the case of Kensington, the mining companies chose the consultants that do the studies and pay for them to be done, not the agencies in charge of mine regulation. Another fault is that the models have never been updated to account for past prediction failure.

Indeed, previous to the Kuiper-Maest report, no one had ever compiled a record that tracks the success rate of the industry's water-quality predictions. Not the mining companies and not the resource agencies in charge of approving and regulating mines.

We know that Coeur chose to gamble on behalf of its shareholders and employees on the legality of dumping mine waste into a lake. After four years of warnings that its plan was illegal, no other conclusion is possible. But Coeur has also chosen to gamble with the environment of Berners Bay, and that puts at risk both environmental and economic values that are worth much more to Juneau than 15 years of Kensington Mine operation.

• Mark Rorick is chairman for the Juneau Group of the Sierra Club.

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