My Turn: There is nothing 'new' about Kensington ordeal

Posted: Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Juneau residents breathed a sigh of relief June 22 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Kensington Mine.

The court's opinion was that the Corps of Engineers "was the appropriate agency to issue the permit and that the permit is lawful."

This meant the hiring of nearly 300 construction workers to build the tailings facility was imminent, with about 200 permanent, high paying jobs once the mine is in operation.

Several weeks later, however, we find ourselves wondering if the mine will indeed open or if we must endure more delays. In a July 14 letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency requested they "reevaluate the circumstances and the conditions of the permit in view of new information..."

In a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I had the opportunity to discuss the Kensington permitting issue with elected representatives and government officials. I have spoken with representatives from the Corps and the EPA author of the above mentioned letter.

What is the "new" information that the EPA would like the Army Corps of Engineers to consider? First, the EPA suggests that a paste tailings facility "could have less environmental impact than the Lower Slate Lake disposal site that was permitted..." However, competent folk differ on the merits of these alternatives. In the case of Kensington, the U.S. Supreme Court just affirmed that "...the Corps was the appropriate agency to issue the permit and that the permit is lawful."

The EPA could have vetoed the permit of the Corps before it went to court in 2005, but chose not to do so. As the Supreme Court states: "By declining to exercise its veto, the EPA in effect deferred to the judgment of the Corps on this point."

If the Corps and EPA did in fact act within their authorities as the Supreme Court attests, then the issue is resolved and we have reasonable protections to our environment in place. Further speculation by the EPA that better alternatives "could" exist seems to make a mockery of the bureaucratic and legal processes that all parties have endured for years.

The second "new" piece of information concerns the reduced mill rate at the mine. While the mill capacity of the mine has been reduced from 2000 tons per day to 1,250 tons per day, this does not translate into a "decrease in the amount of tailings produced..." as the EPA asserts. It merely means that less tailings will be produced per day. Since the Kensington mine has not reduced their overall production plan it is erroneous to suggest that the overall amount of tailings will be reduced.

Finally, the third new piece of information concerns findings of exposed sulfide-bearing rock at the site, which become acidic when exposed to water/air. All parties acknowledge that the acid drainage at Kensington was an unfortunate by-product of the legal process. A road clearing activity that was suspended due to the 9th Circuit Court injunction forced Kensington to abandon their activities, leaving some sulfide-bearing rock exposed. When the acid drainage was reported by Kensington, the authorities allowed them to remediate by covering the exposed area with soil. Knowing well that the EPA understands how common this type of rock is in our area, how the extended exposure occurred (delay in construction due to the injunction) and how simple it is to remediate, one wonders how this can be construed as new information.

Kensington's $25 million-plus annual contribution to our economy through payroll should not be delayed further. The anticipated average annual wage will be $85,000 and will help boost our sagging economy, while also keeping families in our communities. The mine also will pay an estimated $2.5 million in local taxes, and officials have assured a commitment to hiring locals and Alaska Natives.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened a 15-day comment period July 17 for the mine permit modification. Please let the Corps know that we are ready for the mine to open and encourage them to issue the appropriate permit.

Write letters or send e-mails to: Richard Jackson, U.S. Army Engineer District, Alaska Regulatory Division, P. O. Box 6898 Elmendorf AFB, AK 99506, or to richard.g.jackson@usace.army.mil.

• Brian Holst is executive director of the Juneau Economic Development Council.



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