The House Resources Committee passed a resolution Monday supporting Coeur Alaska's tailings plan for the Kensington Mine north of Juneau, encouraging an appeal to the nation's highest court if need be.
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"At this point there is only one alternative and that is that Coeur appeal to the Supreme Court," Steve Borell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, told the committee.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals announced last month that it would rule against the mining company's plan to use Lower Slate Lake as a tailings dump.
"The problems in the 9th Circuit are legendary and have been a national disgrace for decades," Borell wrote in a letter that accompanied his testimony.
The resolution was amended to exclude such language.
Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, and Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, said they were concerned that the court might view it as inflammatory. The committee instead encouraged Coeur Alaska to pursue all legal options, including an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Not all lawmakers were in agreement, however.
"I don't know if this resolution sort of sends a bad message to Coeur, inviting a lawsuit. That is sort of bad advice," said Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks.
However, bill sponsor Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, said that legal options could include a mediation process with the environmental groups that filed suit against the tailings plan.
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Both sides have said they were willing to negotiate a solution. However, neither the mining company nor the conservationists who filed the original suit have pursued negotiation, at least in public.
The appeals court ruled that Coeur's plan violates the federal Clean Water Act.
Rob Cadmus, mining and water quality organizer for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said the group would prefer that Coeur employ a "dry stack" tailings method, similar to that at the Greens Creek Mine on Admiralty Island.
In 1998, Coeur was permitted for that disposal method. It opted instead to pursue dumping in the lake as a way to cut costs, he said.
SEACC and other environmental groups worry that a dangerous precedent would be set if Coeur were allowed to use the lake for tailings. No other mine has been allowed to do so since enactment of the Clean Water Act more than 30 years ago.
Ed Fogels, acting director of the state Department of Natural Resources' Office of Project Management and Permitting, agreed that the ruling by the 9th Circuit Court had potentially large implications for mining projects nationwide.
"We are just watching this to see what the implications are to permit tailings disposal in wetlands," he said.
Cadmus said SEACC supports Coeur's right to appeal to the Supreme Court, but he predicted further delay for the mine if it did.
The group would rather see the corporation plan another disposal method.
"We just feel that it is more appropriate to ensure that the Kensington Mine is done correctly so that it does meet the law," he said.
The suit was initially heard in Alaska district court, which ruled in favor of the mining company. The federal court overruled that decision.
"The agencies reviewed the plans for this mine over the course of a number of years and determined that the proposal did meet the intent of the Clean Water Act. Fundamentally we don't agree with SEACC's challenge and we do believe that the Clean Water Act was complied with," Fogels said.
The resolution will next be heard by the House Judiciary Committee.
Brittany Retherford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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