Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the Kensington Mine just north of Juneau as a guest of Coeur Alaska. I wish more Juneau residents could see this operation firsthand, because I think it would encourage those with undecided minds to support the mine. It might even open some opponents' eyes.
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Our community has heard so much about the mine in the past few years, I imagine each of us has a mental picture of the place. My image was not too clearly formed, but I have to say the whole Kensington operation is much smaller and more compact than I expected. The terrain sloping up from Berners Bay just doesn't allow for sprawling facilities.
I was also a little surprised at the size of Lower Slate Lake, which has been described by some as a unique recreational Mecca. To me, it seemed like an average Southeast pond surrounded by muskeg.
The camp housing the construction workers was more temporary than I assumed it would be because it is not going to be there forever. No one will live out at the mine once it's up and running, another fact of which I had been previously unaware.
Lower Slate Lake is, of course, at the heart of the controversy surrounding the Kensington Mine. The currently permitted plan is to back-fill about 40 percent of the tailings into underground tunnels and deposit the other 60 percent into Lower Slate Lake once the water running into it has been diverted and a dam put in place. This was accepted as a legal and environmentally responsible method by the permitting agencies because tailings were considered "fill."
The lawsuit challenging this method, which failed in lower federal court, succeeded on appeal to the 9th Circuit by virtue of the argument that tailings are "industrial waste." I don't think the permits would ever have been issued if the tailings were really industrial waste, but statutory construction is a challenging task, and different judges see things differently.
Setting the legal arguments aside as the case continues to work its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, there's the practical question, what else could be done? The mine is very close to being fully built, from the necessary underground tunnels to the various processing facilities above ground, to the dock down on the beach where workers, supplies, and ore will come and go. If the tailings don't go into the lake, they must go elsewhere.
The so-called "dry-stack" option, which is not permitted and would have to be permitted, would create a much larger footprint on the lands around Berners Bay. It would be much more visible than the lake option. Perhaps most ironically, it would take a lot of energy to remove a much larger quantity of moisture from the tailings, and that energy would be generated by diesel engines. This, I'm told, would more than double the mine's use of diesel fuel.
That, of course, would lead to more greenhouse-gas emissions and drive up costs. It hardly seems like a viable option for anyone truly seeking the most environmentally friendly outcome.
I don't think every lake-disposal plan would pass muster with the Army Corps of Engineers. But my sense is it's the best plan for this mine in this location. Another thing I saw when I was up in Berners Bay was a lot of men and women hard at work. And so many trucks and pieces of machinery bearing the names of Juneau businesses. Recent analyses of the mine's economic effect clearly illustrate that the Kensington Mine is the most significant project to benefit Juneau's economy in a long while, one without which we'd be in a bad place economically. I just hope it can open on time, and stay in operation long enough to fulfill the tremendous economic promise is represents.
There seems to be little chance of compromise between the parties to the lawsuit. While this is unfortunate, I also believe the 9th Circuit's decision will likely be overturned by our nation's high court. So the primary effect of the plaintiffs' efforts will be delay.
I wonder, in the end, what that really accomplishes.
Benjamin Brown is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Juneau.