My turn: Today is a good day for clean water

Posted: Monday, April 02, 2007

A generation ago, Americans made a commitment to clean up and protect our lakes, rivers and wetlands when we passed the Clean Water Act. Thanks to this commitment, lakes and streams that were once polluted are now once again safe for fishing and swimming. At the time, many argued that the economy would be injured if industry could no longer dump its untreated wastes into our nation's waterways, but after years of strong pollution control and a thriving economy, it is clear that clean water is not only essential for public health, but it is good for business. That is especially true in Southeast Alaska, where some of our strongest industries, such as commercial fishing and tourism, rely on clean water.

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America's commitment to clean water was betrayed by Coeur's proposal to dump its chemically-treated mine tailings into a lake. No hard-rock mine had been granted a permit to dispose of its tailings into our nation's waters in a generation. Coeur's proposal is a giant step backward to an earlier time when our lakes and rivers were cheap waste disposal sites for industry.

Fortunately, the courts have sided with the American people: A lake cannot be destroyed just to benefit a corporation. In a unanimous decision, a panel of the Federal Appeals Court stated that the permits allowing the Kensington gold mine to dump its tailings into Lower Slate Lake violated the Clean Water Act. Put simply, Coeur's tailings design is illegal.

Coeur knew it was heading into uncharted waters when it proposed dumping its tailings into Lower Slate Lake, because no mine had been allowed to do so in more than 30 years. That alone should have raised red flags of caution among its board and senior executives. SEACC warned Coeur that its design was illegal more than four years ago. Unfortunately, Coeur chose to ignore our warnings and, instead, it threw the dice. It gambled by betting that it could successfully roll back a generation of settled law and that no citizen would step forward to defend our right to clean water.

Coeur lost its gamble. Its job now is to redesign the Kensington Mine so that it's legal and fully protects the waters and resources of Berners Bay.

For those people who are dismayed that the opening of the Kensington Mine will be delayed, I would like to say that there is little value to Juneau, and no value to the country in the long run, if we do not do it right. Cutting corners today will result in larger problems in the future. Allowing this precedent of dumping tailings in a lake would have influenced the way we care for our clean water across the nation and, because the United States is often a model for other countries, it could have influenced how mines in other parts of the world were managed. It is important to remember the legacy of mining is not a good one. Too many people and too many communities have been devastated by the toxicity of mine wastes to take lightly what Coeur proposed to do. As we have said since the early days of this mine, it is important to do it right.

It is unfortunate that in recent months Coeur has unleashed personal attacks on SEACC, its board and supporters. We do not know what Coeur hoped to accomplish, but such attacks polarize our community and undermine the civil discourse a democracy requires. We hope that Coeur will stop the attacks; they can have no conceivable benefit either to itself or to Juneau. We also hope that Coeur accepts responsibility for its unwise decision and, if it must stop or slow work on the mine while it redesigns and repermits its tailings facility, that it treat its workers fairly and generously.

We do not dispute Coeur's legal right to build a mine at Kensington. We will, however, work day and night to protect the important values this mine threatens. Alaskans are proud of their state, of its unmatched splendor, of its teeming fish and wildlife, and of its pure waters. If we must have a mine in Berners Bay, let's do it right.

• Russell Heath is the Executive Director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

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