The Kensington Mine's owners are willing to work with environmentalists on a new plan to dispose of mine tailings - if they can get environmentalist support for the new strategy.
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Coeur D'Alene Mines Corp. CEO Dennis Wheeler told the Juneau Chamber of Commerce this week he was willing to accept the invitation of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and other environmental groups to work out a new plan for handling tailings, the waste rock from which ore has been extracted.
Successful negotiations could mean that Coeur Alaska, the subsidiary developing the mine, would switch to a dry-stack disposal process for the mine about 45 miles north of downtown.
This would replace the existing proposal to dump tailings into Lower Slate Lake, a plan that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared illegal. Coeur has appealed the federal court rejection of the Slate Lake disposal.
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Dennis E. Wheeler, Chairman, President and CEO
Presentation to Chamber August 30, 2007PDF Download
Coeur Accepts SEACC's Invitation to Work on Dry Stack Tailing Options
SEACC's Response August 30, 2007PDF Document Download
Buck Lindekugel of SEACC told the Juneau Assembly on Aug. 20 that the groups would be willing to work with mine owners to develop a plan in which the tailings would be placed in dry stacks on land, rather than in the lake.
Before Coeur is willing to do that, however, it wants a commitment from SEACC and other environmental opponents to support its new plan, Wheeler said.
In his chamber presentation Thursday, Wheeler said Coeur is cautious about SEACC's invitation because the environmental groups have not negotiated in good faith in the past.
SEACC representatives have suggested that dry-stack tailings disposal is the best solution for the Kensington, but Wheeler said he was concerned about opening negotiations with them.
"I must tell you truthfully, we are just a bit cautious over their invitation, due to some of their past promises, public statements and the facts," he said.
SEACC later issued a statement welcoming his stand.
"We appreciate Mr. Wheeler's commitment to work together on a mutually acceptable dry stack tailings plan," said Buck Lindekugel, conservation director and staff attorney for SEACC.
Lindekugel emphasized that the court had ruled that the lake disposal plan is illegal.
"It's time to move forward on a dry-stack tailings plan," Lindekugel said.
Wheeler said the company has spent more than $220 million so far on permitting and preparation, and recently finished construction of the mine.
"The Kensington mine is ready to become a gold-producing reality," Wheeler said.
Until it can dispose of its waste, however, it can't begin operation.
Coeur has earlier considered and rejected the dry-stack plan, in part because of fears it would have faced environmental challenges.
"We find it interesting that the plaintiffs are saying publicly that they want to cooperate with Coeur in bringing this mine into production, using a dry-stack option," Wheeler told the chamber.
Lindekugel said the dry-stack tailings disposal was not opposed when the mine sought and obtained a permit to use it in the 1990s. Instead, he said, that permit was abandoned by Coeur in favor of cheaper lake disposal.
Wheeler, in his chamber presentation, said that David Chambers, SEACC's consultant, criticized the dry tailings facility in written comments in 1997. Chambers said more water treatment should be required, questioned the ability to keep tailings dry in such a rainy climate and challenged other parts of the proposal, Wheeler said.
He also said that any negotiations need to involve not only SEACC, but also the Sierra Club and Lynn Canal Conservation, which also were plaintiffs in the suit. In the past, Wheeler said, they've met individually, and reached individual agreements, but other groups failed to joint those agreements.
Wheeler likened the series of individual meetings to Muhammad Ali's "rope-a-dope" boxing strategy to wear down an opponent.
"This approach seems designed to keep separate and segmented negotiations for later backpedaling on any progress," he said.
Lindekugel said he thinks a dry-stack tailings plan can be permitted without environmentalist opposition, especially if it follows what's already been permitted.
"I think that would satisfy the three groups that have been involved with this litigation," he said.
Wheeler's plan received a rousing response from a packed Chamber of Commerce luncheon crowd at the Moose Lodge near the Juneau International Airport.
Lindekugel said neither that nor the criticism of SEACC in his speech surprised him.
"He was obviously playing to the audience, and they responded," he said.
Contact Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or email@example.com.