While the battle over Coeur Alaska's plans for the spoils from their Kensington Mine rages on in the courts, the fight to protect our rivers and lakes from mine waste has produced its first casualty: Lower Slate Lake in Berners Bay. Disturbing aerial photographs on the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council's Web site, taken on Aug. 7, show the hidden and tragic costs of gold mining. Once a sparkling little lake nestled among unbroken forest and muskeg in the shadow of Lions Head Mountain, today Lower Slate Lake sits muddied, the surrounding forest and topsoil stripped from the land and replaced with a patchwork of roads, log piles, ditches and failed attempts at controlling the inevitable forces of erosion.
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In the photos, heavy machines work busily transforming this public water body into a tailings storage facility, a hiding place for the millions of tons of rock that is necessarily discarded in producing a metal we humans consider so precious. As one who treasures Berners Bay more than any other place on earth, the scene is horrific and saddening. That this gem of a lake, the central focus of a major lawsuit seeking to preserve our clean water, could be destroyed while the case file collected dust on Judge Singleton's desk, is a tragedy. I can only hope that the ninth Circuit Court will interpret the Clean Water Act as it was intended: Mine waste doesn't belong in our water. What Coeur Alaska did to Lower Slate Lake is wrong. Sadly, it is too late for the Kensington Mine to do it right.