Federal regulators said Monday the proposed Kensington Mine would disrupt Steller sea lions in Berners Bay but wouldn't jeopardize the species.
The long-awaited finding by the National Marine Fisheries Service is a victory for Coeur Alaska, which wants to build the gold mine northwest of Juneau and use the bay as a transportation corridor for its workers and materials. The finding allows other agencies to complete their permits for the mine.
The finding that the mine won't threaten the existence of federally protected species in Alaska prevents the National Marine Fisheries Service from enforcing its own stringent requirements on the mine to limit disruptions to the marine mammals.
"You really would have to prove that a species will face an increased risk of extinction," said federal biologist Aleria Jensen, who was in charge of developing the agency's biological opinion.
Other regulatory agencies stalled their permits for the mine this winter while Alaska regional staff members with NMFS prepared the 166-page opinion.
"The key conclusion is no jeopardy" to the marine mammals, said Luke Russell, an Idaho-based environmental official for Coeur Alaska's parent company, Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp.
"This (decision) will allow the permitting to move forward," Russell said.
Still, NMFS is trying to convince Coeur Alaska and other regulatory agencies to reconsider locating proposed docks and ferry traffic outside of Berners Bay to prevent disruptions to sea lions, whales and their prey, herring and hooligan.
The agency cited possible harm such as nutritional stress, collisions, noise and oil pollution.
The mine could disrupt the unique feeding activities of sea lions in Berners Bay, Jensen said. The sea lions gather up in long lines like football players and chase their prey from one side of the bay to the other.
She said her agency does agree with many measures Coeur Alaska has proposed to reduce its effects on the bay.
In its biological opinion, Jensen's agency renewed an earlier request, asking Coeur Alaska to suspend ferry trips during the bay's hooligan run and herring spawning along the beaches in April and May.
It also asked Coeur Alaska, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to apply for legal authorization to accidentally harass, injure or kill sea lions and whales.
Mine officials have declined the agency's requests, saying suspending mine traffic would cost them millions annually and that they don't believe they will have any significant incidents with marine mammals.
If vessel operators harm sea lions or whales without authorization, they can face civil or criminal charges, Jensen said.
The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council's mining coordinator, Kat Hall, said she hopes Coeur Alaska revises its position on the agency's requests.
"NMFS' recommendation to stay out of Berners Bay confirms that the bay's exceptional resources are still at risk," Hall said.
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