Alaska Regional Forester Dennis Bschor has rejected an appeal by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council asking him to withdraw the U.S. Forest Service's decision to approve Kensington gold mine operations.
The council and three other Southeast Alaska environmental groups appealed the Dec. 23 decision by Tongass National Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole, alleging violations of several environmental laws including the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act. Bschor announced his decision Thursday.
Bschor based his decision on an opinion provided by Forest Service appeal-reviewing officer Steven Brink, who rejected each of SEACC's counts.
Kat Hall, SEACC mining coordinator, said the groups are disappointed with Bschor's decision, which affirms Coeur Alaska's plan to dump mine tailings in a sub-alpine lake and use Berners Bay, 45 miles north of Juneau, as a transportation route for its workers and materials.
"The Forest Service failed to fulfill its responsibility to the public," Hall said. "Instead of managing Berners Bay in a careful manner, the agency put the private interest of Coeur Alaska ahead of the public interest."
The Forest Service says it has no jurisdiction over Berners Bay.
"Coeur is obviously very pleased," said Luke Russell, director of environmental affairs for the company's Idaho-based parent, Coeur d'Alene Mines. "It allows us to take the next steps in permitting and preparing for construction this summer."
SEACC will wait to see what the final permits for the project entail before taking further action to try to stop the project, Hall said. The appeal's denial is the end of the Forest Service's administrative process, though legal challenges could follow, she said.
Hall noted that the National Marine Fisheries Service recommended against the mine's use of Berners Bay for transport, in order to protect the bay's endangered species and their prey. Hall said she hopes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will adopt NMFS' recommendation.
Tongass spokesman Dennis Neill said forest officials are pleased that the permitting process can proceed. The approved project alternative provides, "the greatest good over the long term," he said.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org