The Juneau district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service is recommending approval of the latest Kensington gold mine plan without further study of its environmental impacts.
"It's tentative, because I want other folks to look at the analysis and see if we've covered all the bases," said Ranger Pete Griffin.
If Griffin's recommendation is approved, mine operator Coeur Alaska will bypass what is usually another 18 to 24 months to complete a supplemental environmental impact statement. Coeur will still need several other state and federal permits to start operations at the mine, about 45 miles north of downtown.
Coeur's permit to dump tailings into Lower Slate Lake, north of Berners Bay, was invalidated by a federal appeals court after environmental groups, led by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, sued.
The mine modified its plan last fall to mix the mine's tailings with cement into a paste and deposit them near Comet Beach, on Lynn Canal. Tailings are the ground rock produced after metal is extracted from the ore.
Comet Beach is the same spot the Forest Service approved for a dry tailings facility in 1997 and examined again in 2004.
Federal law would require more environmental study if the new plan were substantially different. Griffin said he did not recommend another environmental impact statement partly because the footprint would be nearly the same as in that plan, and the total acreage affected would be slightly less.
"We don't believe there would be any substantial changes in water quality, surface water or groundwater," he added.
The ranger asked other agencies and the public to review the recommendation. The comment period is open until April 25. After that, the Tongass National Forest supervisor, Forrest Cole, will decide whether to approve the recommendation.
Coeur Alaska managers could not be reached by Monday afternoon's press deadline.
SEACC Executive Director Russell Heath said Monday afternoon he needed more time to review the letter from Griffin, which he had just received, before he could comment. The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council has called the paste tailings plan superior to the plan it challenged in court.
Meanwhile, the state of Alaska and Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp., the Idaho-based parent company of Coeur Alaska, have filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate permits for the Lower Slate Lake tailings plan. SEACC, the respondent, has until March 31 to file its response with the court.
Chuck Collins, president of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, said it's good news for Juneau if the mine can open sooner.
"Kensington is going to be doing lots of business with lots of other businesses, whether it's freight or fuel or paper towels," he said.
Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.