Coeur Alaska Inc. has asked the U.S. Corps of Engineers to hurry and reissue its permit for the Kensington mine's waste disposal, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants the Corps to slow down and take another look at an option Coeur abandoned last year.
Construction at the mine has been on hold since 2006.
"While we appreciate that this will not allow work to resume this summer, we believe that in the long run everyone will be better off if we follow our regulations and go through the prescribed processes," wrote Michael Gearheard, EPA's acting deputy regional administrator for Region 10, which includes Alaska, in a July 14 letter to the Corps.
Gearheard said Thursday his letter was vetted at higher levels before the regional office sent it.
"It's been a conversation nationally within the agency for several days," he said.
Coeur: Delays could cost millions
EPA estimated a reevaluation would take eight months, including a new public comment period, and said it would work quickly with the Corps "to complete the permitting process for the (paste tailings facility)."
In a June court filing, Coeur estimated that delays on its Kensington permit could cost the company millions of dollars.
EPA's letter is "really unbelievable," said Tony Ebersole, spokesman for parent company Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp.
"We can only think that this action does not reflect the official view of the National EPA or the Obama Administration, given that it would prevent the creation of 300 Alaska Native and union affiliated jobs and millions of dollars of economic stimulus to the Southeast economy - all under a Supreme Court-validated plan," he wrote in an e-mail.
Ebersole wrote that it had taken nine years and multiple public comment periods to get the Slate Lake permit, and federal and state agencies all supported it.
EPA revives paste tailings plan
Where to put Kensington's tailings, the ground-up waste rock left after metals are removed from ore, has long been the main controversy over the Juneau-area gold mine.
Coeur wants to put them in Lower Slate Lake, which feeds Berners Bay, and treat the water coming out. Though the Corps of Engineers issued a permit in 2005, the mine has been on hold since 2006, because environmentalists sued to keep the tailings out of the lake.
They lost. On June 22, the U.S. Supreme Court said the Corps had been right to issue a permit for the Lower Slate Lake tailings plan. The justices in the 6-3 majority called the Lower Slate Lake plan the environmentally preferred option for the mine, citing the Corps of Engineers' analysis.
That's important because federal environmental law requires the Corps to choose the least damaging alternative that's practical when issuing construction permits.
The EPA doesn't quibble with the court's decision or the Corps' past analysis. Rather, it says "new information" has come to light since the last time the Corps looked at the mine's tailings disposal options, and it says the Corps is legally obligated to analyze it.
And Gearheard's letter said EPA believes an upland option, the paste tailings facility, may be the least damaging alternative in light of that new information.
It's a plan - preferred by the environmentalists who sued - in which Coeur would squeeze water out of the tailings and store the resulting paste in the wetlands above Comet Beach, which lines Lynn Canal.
After the Lower Slate Lake plan was halted, Coeur applied for a permit to build the paste tailings facility. But the company abruptly canceled its application in fall 2008, shortly before agencies expected to issue it, and instead focused on its Supreme Court bid to reinstate the Slate Lake plan.
In the past, the mine company has said a paste tailings option would be more expensive than the Slate Lake plan.
EPA: Why paste may be better
EPA included two bits of new information since the Corps' 2005 analysis.
First, the mill Coeur actually built at the site has a smaller capacity than the one the Corps of Engineers was considering when it issued the permit. It would produce less tailings, and storage of them would take up less space.
Second, state environmental regulators flying over Kensington last year found acid rock drainage near Lower Slate Lake. In the last analysis, the Corps had no evidence of the sulfide-bearing ores that occur naturally but can trigger the need for extra environmental protection. Acidic water leaches metals from rock that are toxic to fish and wildlife.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation issued Coeur a notice of violation for the acid mine drainage and worked with the company on a plan to clean it up. The drainage is currently under control.
"If it turns out there is AMD (acid mine drainage), that would suggest the company would have to treat that AMD for a long time," said Gearheard.
"That issue is classically a very big issue at hard rock mines around the country," he said. "It's one of the reasons that EPA winds up doing that kind of treatment under its Superfund program around the country."
Does EPA's letter have teeth?
The Clean Water Act says EPA can veto Corps of Engineers permits like this one.
"We are not invoking that lever with this action," Gearheard said. "We are calling the facts as we see them to the Corps' attention with this letter, and that's really all we are doing."
Spokeswoman Pat Richardson for the Alaska District of the Corps of Engineers said the agency received the EPA letter and plans to respond, but could not say when. The agency is not bound by any deadlines, though the mine company has asked for expedited review.
Mark Rorick, executive director of the Juneau Group of the Sierra Club, one of the three groups that sued over the tailings plan, said he wasn't quite celebrating, but he was surprised and pleased at the tack EPA took.
"After the Supreme Court decision, a lot of us were very unhappy - sticking our heads in the sand, and wanting to sleep through the whole thing. But we also knew that ... if we lost, that this would trigger reactions. That it's not over until it's over. And obviously, it is not over yet."
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