Juneau Assembly: Clean water bill opposed in 5-4 vote

Supporters say bill may threaten viability of Kensington mine

Posted: Tuesday, April 07, 2009

In a 5-4 vote, the Juneau Assembly approved a resolution Monday that frames federal legislation attempting to curb the practice of mountaintop removal for coal mining as an unwanted detriment to the viability of Coeur Alaska Inc.'s Kensington gold mine, located 45 miles northwest of Juneau.

Assembly members Sara Chambers and Randy Wanamaker wrote the resolution. Its other backers on the Assembly included Johan Dybdahl, Merrill Sanford and David Stone. Bob Doll, Jonathan Anderson, Jeff Bush and Mayor Bruce Botelho were in the minority.

That vote followed two failed motions by Bush, first to table the resolution indefinitely, then to substitute a more moderate resolution asking the U.S. Congress to write its clean water legislation in such a way that would "limit its impact so as not to adversely affect the potential development of the Kensington."

"I think it's premature to be dealing with the matter until the Supreme Court makes its decision and then, only if (the federal legislation) begins to move," Bush said.

Wanamaker said the legislation would create a massive impediment to the common practice of storing fill in wetlands and add great expense to projects.

"Juneau shouldn't allow it without stating our objection. ... It asserts our rightful demand to have our voices heard," he said.

The Assembly's action followed public testimony mostly in opposition to the resolution.

The federal legislation could affect Kensington, which is not a mountaintop removal mine, because it would exclude mine tailings from the federal definition of fill. That in turn would subject the practice to an Environmental Protection Agency ban on such disposal, rather than allow a fill process already permitted in this case by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The argument over whether mine tailings can be considered fill or not already has been litigated in the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to deliver an opinion on the matter by June. Mine representatives frame that case as the pivot point that is holding up the mine's opening and job creation, while environmental groups say it was a business decision to abandon an alternative, financially viable and environmentally preferred tailings disposal process.

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