Time is flying by. Coeur has known for almost half a year that its proposal to dump tailings from the Kensington Mine into Lower Slate Lake is illegal, yet it still has not told the people of Juneau how it plans to move the mine forward. As the construction phase of the mine winds down, many people in the community are increasingly concerned about potential delays in the start-up of mine operations.
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SEACC and our co-plaintiffs challenged the tailings facility at the Kensington Mine two years ago because dumping chemically processed wastes into a lake is a grave step backwards in the way in which our nation manages its lakes and rivers. For a generation, no mine has been allowed to dispose of its waste in a lake. Allowing it in Alaska, the state with our country's cleanest waters, was a foolish mistake. Last March, the 9th Circuit Court first announced it agreed with us: The Kensington Mine's tailings plan violates the law.
That said, we appreciate the economic benefits and jobs that the planning and development of the Kensington Mine has and will provide Juneau. We also acknowledge Coeur's record of hiring Alaskans, many of them from Juneau and the surrounding communities.
In addition to enjoying the benefits of an increase in jobs, as a community we share the responsibility for taking care of our resources. Making exceptions for short-term gains costs us much more in the long term. Caring for the health of our environment today is far more preferable to cleaning up our mistakes in later years.
Recently, there have been many calls by Coeur and its allies, most notably in a mailing from BBC Human Resources Development Corporation, whose Executive Director is Randy Wanamaker, for SEACC to withdraw our lawsuit or to "settle out of court." This cannot be done. The court has ruled. The case is over. There is no lawsuit to withdraw. Nor can SEACC settle out of court. The Kensington's tailings scheme is illegal; it would take a change in federal law to allow Coeur to dump its tailings into Lower Slate Lake.
If it remains committed to Lower Slate Lake, Coeur's only option is to appeal the court's ruling to the full 9th Circuit or to the Supreme Court. Even if Coeur won, it would at best delay the opening of the mine for another year. If it lost, it would be right where it is today - with an illegal tailings facility but with an additional year's delay.
There's still a chance to do it right and move the Kensington Mine forward. Kensington can store its waste in more responsible ways, as well-run mines in other parts of the country do. In 1991, SEACC publicly urged Coeur to use a dry stack tailings facility. This is not a wild scheme. Greens Creek uses a dry stack facility and, in its assessment of Kensington, the Environmental Protection Agency determined that a dry stack facility was the environmentally preferred design.
Ever since the court found Coeur's lake-dumping plans illegal, SEACC has expressed willingness to work with the company to develop an environmentally responsible dry stack tailings facility. By working together, such a facility could be re-permitted in a way that reduces unnecessary delay of jobs. In 1998, Coeur had all the necessary permits for a dry stack facility. The environmental review done in 2004 reassessed this option, so it shouldn't take long now to move forward with it. Furthermore, if constructed and operated with care, it might be possible to develop a temporary tailings storage plan that would allow production to start while a permanent dry stack facility is permitted.
A dry stack facility is the solution that best meets the needs of Juneau. It is the fastest way to get the mine in operation and would better protect Alaska's waters. Coeur claims this method wouldn't be as profitable, but Alaska's economy depends on healthy waterways and with gold prices over $650 an ounce, Coeur can afford to do it right. Berners Bay and the people of Juneau deserve it.
It is time to move forward. The ball is in Coeur's court.
Buck Lindekugel is a Juneau resident and the conservation director for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
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