Kensington mine permit is valid; it should be honored

Posted: Friday, August 14, 2009

The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Alaska's U.S. senators have written an excellent rebuttal to the Environmental Protection Agency's request for yet another review of the Kensington mine plan near Juneau.

Earlier this summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a previous plan approved by the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the EPA, it seemed the issues had finally been resolved. That resolution was important not only for the Kensington mine but also for any future mine in Alaska.

Now, though, the EPA asserts that new issues have arisen.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich last week asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which holds permitting authority for the mine, to dismiss the EPA's arguments.

The mine owner, Coeur Alaska Inc., has spent years and millions of dollars bringing the mine to the cusp of production. It plans to dispose of the mine's tailings in a small lake.

The tailings must go somewhere; the lake is the best option. Once mining is complete, this plan "will result in a lake with substantially better habitat for fish and other aquatic life than currently exists and a longterm wetland loss of only 0.4 acres," Murkowski and Begich wrote in their letter to the Corps.

In a recent letter, though, the EPA said a mine waste disposal option called a "paste tailings facility" is a new option that needs review. The paste tailings facility would cover 102 acres with a waste pile eight stories high, Murkowski and Begich said. That's hardly a good alternative from an environmental standpoint. The paste facility also isn't a new idea. Coeur Alaska began looking at it as an option while awaiting a Supreme Court decision, but even then the EPA didn't view it as the best alternative to the lake.

The EPA also told the Corps that a revised, lower processing rate at the mine mill requires a new review of the best disposal plan. The mine will process waste at about two-thirds the pace identified in the 2004 environmental impact statement. That lower rate could make disposal sites other than the lake more attractive, the EPA suggested. Murkowski and Begich said the EPA is confused - the reduced milling rate "has no effect on total tonnage of tailings, total footprint of tailings, nor environmental impacts," they said.

Finally, the EPA said unplanned acid drainage off some exposed rock near the mine site is new and needs to be part of any environmental assessment. But this minor drainage problem exists only because Coeur's construction was halted by the court case. As soon as the mine can resume work under the permit upheld by the Supreme Court, it will address the acidic drainage, the senators said.

Federal agencies spent many years and dollars working out a final plan for the Kensington mine. The only obstacle that remained was the court case brought by environmental organizations. With that case decided in the agencies' and Coeur's favor, the permit is valid. It must be honored.

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