Assembly to take up mining regs

Bill intended to clean up coal mining could affect Kensington

Posted: Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Juneau Assembly will consider a resolution Monday evening opposing a water-quality bill now in the U.S. Congress on the grounds it may threaten the future of the Kensington gold mine.

When the Assembly passed two resolutions in past years supporting the mine, it did so by supporting mediation with the environmentalists who have been fighting the mine's development plan. This resolution, if it passed, would plant the Assembly more firmly on the side of Coeur Alaska Inc. and against environmentalists.

The mine, located 45 miles northwest of Juneau on the north side of Berners Bay, is on hold right now while the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether its tailings should be classified as fill, as a 2002 Bush Administration rule allows.

Tailings are the ground-up waste rock remaining after ore is removed.

The court's answer will determine whether Coeur can dump its tailings into Lower Slate Lake located north of Berners Bay, or whether it has to store the tailings on land. If tailings are considered fill, they can go into the lake.

That's what the U.S. Corps of Engineers said when it issued Coeur permits. But environmentalists at the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Lynn Canal Conservation and the Juneau Group of the Sierra Club successfully sued in federal appeals court. The permits were vacated and Coeur appealed.

The high court heard arguments in January and is expected to decide by June.

Coeur's parent company, Idaho-based Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp., has said it will go ahead with the Slate Lake plan if it wins but won't say what its plans are if it loses.

It turns out the legislative branch could take a stand on the fill issue. The Clean Water Protection Act, also referred to as House Resolution 1310, was reintroduced March 4 and would define fill so it wouldn't include tailings.

The bill wasn't written for Kensington. It was introduced by a Democrat from New Jersey to stop "mountaintop removal" coal mining from dumping waste into streams.

And it's not clear how it will affect Kensington, especially given that no one knows how or when the Supreme Court will rule on the case.

Asked how the bill could affect Coeur's plans, Coeur spokesman Tony Ebersole wrote that the bill was unlikely to pass. It has been introduced and stalled twice now.

Locals, whether they support or oppose the Slate Lake tailings plan, agree that HR 1310 could affect Coeur's plans.

"I think the Clean Water Protection Act would stop practices like the Slate Lake option. Whether or not it would be applicable to the Kensington, it's hard to say," said Rob Cadmus of SEACC.

Assembly members Randy Wanamaker and Sara Chambers went further in their draft resolution for the Assembly. They wrote that the bill "would override" a pro-mine decision from the Supreme Court and "block a local project."

Wanamaker said his interpretation of the bill's effect was consistent with Coeur's.

"They (environmentalists) have gone to court, and they've been heard," Wanamaker said. "And now it sounds like they're afraid they might lose, and they're looking for a way to circumvent their loss. And the people who will pay the cost are the people of Juneau," he said.

He says the bill would have a far-ranging impact, from home builders to cities that want to dig landfills or build sewer systems.

But Cadmus of SEACC wants the Assembly to know that opposing the Clean Water Protection Act doesn't equate to support for Kensington. It has broader implications for water quality. He argues that if the Assembly wants to support the mine, it should draft a resolution saying just that.

"Opposing HR 1310 would show support for mountaintop removal coal mining, plans for the Pebble Mine to use lakes and streams as toxic dumps, and industries like coal-fired power plants to use our lakes and streams as waste dumps," Cadmus wrote in a letter to the Assembly this week.

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