My turn: Solving the Kensington dilemma

Posted: Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Various Southeast Alaska Conservation Council board members have been writing to suggest that all Coeur has to do to get the Kensington Mine going is kiss SEAAC's ring and move the tailings to a dry stack on Lynn Canal. Well, it's not so simple.

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You see, Coeur already has built the mill over on the Berners Bay side, while the 1997 environmental impact study and the more recent SEIS only considered dry stack tailings on Lynn Canal in the context of a man-camp and underground milling. No facilities for the dry stack option were to be built in Berners Bay. All those mountains of paperwork that took years to do would have to be done over again. SEACC knows this. They are just being dishonest about their "simple" solution. Hello?

And what about the environmental impact of SEACC's simple plan? Imagine a giant mountain of garbage on Lynn Canal. Won't the cruise ship passengers like that one? Independent third parties looking at this plan to effectively double the impact have come away with expressions like "SEACC wants what?"

If you are curious what Mount SEACC-Garbage would look like, the Forest Service did some simulations for the SEIS. What is it with Juneau and garbage mountains anyway? Hello?

Technically and legally - and on the ground - there has to be a better way. I think it's a shame that Coeur hasn't spoken publicly about the legal and technical issues. Perhaps they think people here are too stupid to understand. Or perhaps their legal and PR advisors don't understand the issues themselves. I got that impression listening to their court arguments. It seems they need help. So I, a mere member of the public, will throw my proposed solution out there with the SEACC board members' ideas.

Here is my more awesome solution. SEACC sued on a Clean Water Act technicality to prevent Coeur from placing a certain milling reagent in the waters of the United States. (It looks like they will win that suit because the Supreme Court seldom takes cases about this kind of regulatory technicality. Administrative fixes are the norm. Coeur has apparently hired lawyers that don't know about this sort of thing. Sad.) Under the Clean Water Act, wetlands (just like Lower Slate Lake) are waters of the United States, and dry tailings have the reagent (just like proposed tailings slurry), so the same legal issue that SEACC sued over also exists for dry tailings. The way it's solved for dry tailings is to dig up or bury all of the wetlands with "nonjurisdictional" nonreagent-containing material prior to tailings placement. The tailings area is then declared non-jurisdictional - that is outside of the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act - and tailings placement can proceed.

It seems to me that something similar can be done for the Lower Slate Lake site, which by the way, already has been clear-cut and dug up. (There is a photo on SEACC's Web site, if you are curious.) Water can be diverted around the lake, the lake can be drained, and the remaining organic sediment can be filled with "nonjurisdictional" rock. Then tailings placement can proceed.

This is a win-win-win scenario. SEACC wins its lawsuit and gets the Equal Access to Justice money and fundraising money while making some arcane point about technicalities of the Clean Water Act. Coeur and the people of Juneau get the mine and the much-needed economic boost - quite possibly without having to re-do the paperwork. And cruise ship passengers don't have to look at another garbage mountain.

I say, let's get on with it.

• Eric Twelker is a Juneau resident.

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