The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reissued a permit Friday to Coeur Alaska Inc. for its Kensington mine plans, clearing the way for construction to resume on the final component of the complex that's been on hold since 2006 because of environmentalists' lawsuits.
Construction is expected to create 300 jobs, and the gold mine itself is expected to employ 200 well-paid workers once in operation. State and local business interests have been clamoring for it for years, celebrating it as a major new economic driver that will keep stagnation in Juneau at bay and put a dent in the region's unemployment numbers.
The mine is located about 45 miles northwest of Juneau.
The U.S. Supreme Court settled the legal battle in the mine company's favor through a June decision, but not before the original permit expired. The new permit is good through July 2014.
The Supreme Court case centered around a to-be constructed facility for disposing of mine waste known as tailings, the ground up waste rock left over after metals are removed from ore. Coeur plans to dump the tailings into Lower Slate Lake and treat the water flowing out to Berners Bay; the environmental groups sought a wetland disposal option that would preserve the lake.
"We still believe the (wetland) plan is best for Berners Bay, but we're glad the Corps of Engineers made its decision quickly," said Lindsey Ketchel, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, one of the environmental groups involved in the lawsuit.
The mine company would not comment Friday, though spokesman Tony Ebersole of Idaho-based parent-company Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp. said a statement will be issued Monday before financial markets open.
After the Supreme Court's decision, the federal Environmental Protection Agency raised eyebrows with a July 14 letter requesting the Corps reevaluate the tailings disposal options, but Corps officials said Friday they've addressed the EPA's concerns and that the agency has exhausted its avenues for affecting the permitting process.
"It's a done deal at this point," said Steve Meyers, the acting regulatory division chief with the Corps of Engineers' Alaska district. Construction could legally proceed Friday, Meyers said.
The EPA's July 14 letter said two new developments warranted reevaluation, which the Corps rebutted in a technical memo supplementing its written decision.
EPA: First, the processing mill Coeur built at the site has a lower capacity than considered in the initial permit, which means less tailings to store and less impact than previously considered.
Corps: It's the same impact, just spread over a longer period of time.
EPA: Second, newly exposed rock is causing acid drainage near Lower Slate Lake.
Corps: Coeur is actively managing the acid drainage under state and federal oversight. Also, some acid drainage was already anticipated from the ore and waste rock in a 2004 environmental impact study update.
The EPA could not be reached for comment.
The Corps' continued justification for lake disposal fulfilling the "least environmentally damaging practicable alternative" standard over the wetland disposal option relies partially on a federal code that defines wetlands as ecologically more valuable than lakes. The Corps estimated 70 to 80 acres of wetlands would be impacted by the disposal method the environmentalists advocated.
Filling the 23-acre Lower Slate Lake with mine tailings will make it a shallower 60-acre lake. All the fish will die along the way, but Coeur is obligated to restock it when it's finished mining.
During a 15-day public comment period on the reissue process that ended Aug. 3, the Corps received more than 8,500 comments, of which about 6,850 were letters from environmental groups on behalf of their members. Another 1,200 were in the form of petition signatures supporting the project. Local officials, individuals, Native tribes and their members, private companies and other organizations made up the rest.
Volume aside, were there any surprises?
"No, really can't say that there were," said Richard Jackson, a regulatory project manager with the Corps of Engineers. "(They) pretty well fell into two distinct views of the project."
Gov. Sean Parnell was quick to weigh in on the news in a press release Friday, saying, "The Corps made the right call. They recognized that this project has been approved through the right processes, and there's no reason for further delay."
After years of delays, Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan and Rep. Beth Kerttula withheld wholehearted acceptance that this was the end of the Kensington mine saga.
"My hope is this is the end of the story. ... It may be that it's over, I'd want to see that in writing" from the EPA, Kerttula said.
They both characterized the EPA-Corps of Engineers exchanges as governmental infighting.
"I can't believe that two federal agencies don't talk to each other and come to some decision on their differences and allow this project to continue. It really upsets me," Egan said.
Said Kerttula: "This sounds like a jurisdictional tiff between two federal agencies, and that makes me mad - that's not the way to do business, there are lives in the balance here."
The third member of Juneau's legislative delegation, Rep. Cathy Muñoz, could not be reached for comment.
Randy Wanamaker, executive director of BBC Human Resource Development Corp. and a Juneau Assembly member, had a decidedly more optimistic view.
"This is really very gratifying, heartwarming news for Southeast Alaska, really good news for Juneau," he said.
His company preps job seekers for employment with Coeur Alaska and was founded by the mining company, Goldbelt Inc. and other Southeast Native corporations.
"They finally have hope. They have hope they can go back to work, that they can support their families," Wanamaker said.
Contact Jeremy Hsieh at 523-2258 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Empire reporter Pat Forgey contributed to this report.