Former governor and gubernatorial candidate Tony Knowles earlier this week urged three environmental groups to drop their lawsuit against the Kensington gold mine.
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"The Kensington Mine is critical to Juneau's economic future," said Knowles, in a released statement. "It's an environmentally responsible project that should go forward."
Last week the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco issued a temporary injunction halting certain construction work on the Kensington Mine, about 45 miles northwest of downtown. The court order stated that any construction related to putting tailings into a subalpine lake must cease until the court rules on an appeal filed by three environmental groups - the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Lynn Canal Conservation and Sierra Club.
The groups are challenging a permit granted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that allowed the mine operators to pour rock slurry into Lower Slate Lake.
"We feel that (Knowles) didn't quite understand what our argument is," said Rob Cadmus, SEACC water quality and mining organizer.
Knowles, in his statement, did not address two main points the plaintiffs are stressing: The permit violates the Clean Water Act and allows tailings to be dumped into a body of water, which could set a precedence for future mine plans, Cadmus said.
The former governor also urged Coeur to protect the Berners Bay watershed, but appeared satisfied with the progress so far.
"Coeur has made a number of changes as a result of various reviews by state and federal agencies," Knowles said.
Earlier this month, a U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the permit.
"The project permits have withstood numerous administrative and legal challenges, and we will continue to vigorously defend the permits that have been granted and upheld by the federal district court," said Dennis Wheeler, CEO of Coeur D'Alene, the Idaho-based parent company of Coeur Alaska.
The company is waiting to comment on how the temporary injunction will affect jobs and the work schedule, said Scott Lamb, Coeur vice president of investor relations. The Kensington Mine employs 300 workers.
Sarah Palin, the Republican challenger for governor, is an "absolute supporter" of the Kensington Mine, according to her spokesman, Curtis Smith.
"She's about creating high-paying jobs, and she definitely recognizes that the mining industry has been an excellent business partner in Alaska," Smith said. "From her point of view, it's a shame that a small group of special interests can affect progress on a mine that would be a huge economic multiplier for Southeast Alaska."
Last week, Gov. Frank Murkowski also urged the groups to abandon the lawsuit, pointing to a case in May 2004 when the Northern Alaska Environmental Center dropped its challenge of the Pogo Mine near Delta Junction.
Knowles' stance on the lawsuit should not be a surprise to those with memories of the Democrat while he was in office from 1994 to 2002, said Jim Sykes, a founder of the Alaska Green Party.
"He's had a mixed record on the environment," he said.
The Democrats may be reluctant to disagree with their gubernatorial nominee as he faces a tight race with Republican Sarah Palin, who also supports the mine's development, Sykes said.
Juneau Democratic candidate for state representative Andrea Doll said she was not surprised to hear Knowles' response because he campaigns on "sound science and jobs for Alaska."
"He's trying to find a way to compromise," she said.
In his statement, Knowles added that the state should have been leading the effort to resolve the differences.
While the price of gold at more than $600 an ounce and the mining industry having a light tax burden in Alaska, the operator can afford to implement alternatives to putting the tailings into a lake, said Andrew Halcro, a Republican and former state legislator who is running as an independent gubernatorial candidate.
"If the state calls on them to do more to protect the environment, then there's nothing wrong with that," Halcro said.
Juneau resident and mine supporter Dick Knapp said he was pleased to hear Knowles supports the permit, though the case before the court should be reviewed on the permit's merits and legality, "not on who supports it," he said.
Andrew Petty can be reached at email@example.com
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