My Turn: Clean Water Act now in Obama's hands

Posted: Friday, July 10, 2009

There's been a lot of talk and speculation around town about what the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) intends to do following the recent Kensington mine Supreme Court decision. So here's where we are:

• Although we may not agree with the U.S. Supreme Court, its ruling ends the legal case. We will not drag out this litigation. We did not request the Supreme Court re-hear the case or oppose Coeur's motion to lift the injunction that halted work at the mine. Dragging out the litigation, or bringing new litigation on tangential issues, would simply be a delay and is the wrong thing to do.

• Secondly, the question most relevant to the fate of the Kensington is not what SEACC is doing but what is happening nationally. It appears from the national outcry after the court ruling, the decision did not end the debate. Instead it made the definition of fill - the waste left behind - a hot national issue.

Rulings from the Supreme Court set national precedent, and, once an issue reaches this level, folks previously watching from the sidelines are now compelled to get in the game. As this issue takes on a life of its own, SEACC's voice is but one in a chorus of American voices from all walks of life calling for stronger protections for our nation's water.

From the USA Today editorial board and the comedy-news show the Colbert Report to citizens and organizations across the country, the sweeping implications of the decision shocked America. Their response is clear: America's lakes and streams should not be used as mine waste dumps.

The debate has never been if, but how the Kensington mine moves forward. Our efforts have always been to get Coeur to "do it right." We recognize the importance of the jobs this mine will bring to Juneau, and we commend Coeur for its commitment to hire locally, especially from Native Alaskan communities.

This lake dumping plan may be legal, but it is not "doing it right" for Alaska or America. That's why we put considerable effort into working with Coeur to develop a paste tailings plan to better protect the world-class biological and recreational wonders of Berners Bay.

So where does the ruling leave us now? The Supreme Court interprets the law, but it leaves policy questions up to the executive and legislative branches of government. In this case, the Supreme Court decided the laws and regulations governing fill permits were conflicting and "ambiguous." By hinging the decision on the existence of one internal, mid-level agency memo, the court revealed the need to clarify the laws that keep America's water clean.

The ruling and national outcry got the immediate attention of national leaders. Many of these officials were already working to fix problems caused by other Bush administration rule changes. Eleven days before the Kensington ruling, the Obama administration announced plans to take "unprecedented steps" to reduce environmental impacts from the use of coal mining waste as "fill material." On the day the Supreme Court ruled, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was reviewing the decision "and its potential implications regarding EPA's authority to ensure effective environmental protection under the Clean Water Act." It remains to be seen how this new direction, including clarifying the appropriate roles of EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers will or will not impact the Kensington.

SEACC continues to advocate for the paste tailings plan. It better protects the clean waters of Berners Bay and creates the same amount jobs.

We have and will continue to tell our nation's leaders and the regulatory agencies that our laws should reflect the fact that there are better ways to dispose of mine waste than in America's clean water.

In terms of Kensington specifically, we will accept the results of administrative or congressional action resulting from this national debate, and we will continue to work with Coeur to live up to its promise to protect Berners Bay.

For more information about Kensington and all the other work we do, please visit www.seacc.org.

• Lindsey Ketchel is executive director of SEACC.



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