The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a draft Clean Water Act permit for the proposed Kensington Mine, opening a 45-day public comment period for the project.
Additionally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers published notice of the application to discharge mining rock waste into a nearby lake, also opening a comment period to the public.
The Murkowski administration praised the decision Monday, but environmentalists said the gold-mining project would violate the U.S. Clean Water Act.
The project is proposed by Coeur Alaska and is expected to employ 300 workers during construction, with payroll and benefits of $16 million, and 200 workers during operation.
The Kensington Mine, about 45 miles northeast of downtown Juneau, has a projected 1.4 million ounces of available gold.
Environmentalists on Monday questioned the process of agencies issuing draft permits without a mine operating plan.
Buck Lindekugel, conservation director for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said the project has a variety of proposed alternatives for disposing rock waste. One proposal would dam a lake near Berners Bay that would be used as a dump site for the rock waste. Another proposal would stack the rock waste above Comet Beach, near the mine site.
Lindekugel asked how citizens are supposed to comment on a plan that has not yet been established by the U.S. Forest Service.
"They have several alternatives," Lindekugel said. "The most likely alternative - is that what we're commenting on?"
Gov. Frank Murkowski applauded the announcement, calling it a step in the right direction for a "healthy, productive mining sector."
"This is another major breakthrough for mining in Alaska," Murkowski said in a prepared statement. "Kensington is on its way to becoming a reality, just like the Pogo, Red Dog, and Greens Creek mines. ... Kensington is a valuable gold mine property that will provide decades of quality jobs in the Juneau economy."
Commenting on the press release, Lindekugel argued that the project has a projected life of 12 years and would not provide decades of jobs.
Rick Richins, project director for Coeur Alaska, said issuance of the draft permits is a "significant milestone" for the project.
"It's very good news," he said. "We've been working long and hard to get to this point and we're extremely excited."
Richins said he hopes the permits will be approved by EPA and the Corps of Engineers by this fall. Then the Forest Service will issue a final record of decision on whether the project will be approved. If approved, Coeur could begin construction on the mine as early as this year, Richins said.
"We would hope to be into production within 16 months after we start construction," he said.