Empire Editorial: SEACC's true colors about to come out on Kensington gold mine

Posted: Sunday, September 09, 2007

Juneau residents are about to see Southeast Alaska Conservation Council's true intentions for the Kensington gold mine.

Sound off on the important issues at

Will the region's most prominent environmental group support responsible development of this mine near Berners Bay? Or is it against the mine no matter what shape it takes?

Two of the group's leaders have said privately they oppose the mine in any form.

Now, publicly, the group says it's pushing for the mine to store its tailings, the rock waste after the metal is extracted, in dry stacks on land. This method would replace depositing the tailings in Lower Slate Lake, which the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals deemed illegal under the federal Clean Water Act.

Mine operator Coeur Alaska says it's ready to work with SEACC on this project and come up with a tailings plan that passes legal muster.

The real question is, will SEACC want to change the rules of the game even if Coeur gives up its hand and agrees to pick up new cards?

SEACC's rhetoric today stirs up recollections of its vociferous comments against the Southeast timber industry in the 1990s. The environmental group fought hard against wide-scale industrial logging and massive clear-cuts. But as the industry ramped down, as timber sales became smaller and fewer and farther between, SEACC's rhetoric didn't change.

When the U.S. Forest Service released a new Tongass Land Management Plan in 1997, it proposed a blueprint for forest use that was quite different than that used during the glory days of the region's pulp mills. SEACC didn't have to like everything about the plan. But its leaders gave virtually no acknowledgment that timber sales had been reduced considerably.

The group claimed it wasn't against all logging, but there never seemed to be a sale small enough or in the right place to satisfy the organization.

Now, the question remains: Will Coeur Alaska ever be able to develop a mine plan that SEACC will accept? Or will the organization come up with one tactic after another to prevent the mine from opening?

If SEACC leaders really oppose the mine in any shape or size, it would be far more honorable for them to just say so. But pretending they'd support the mine under some circumstances is far more politically advantageous. It comes across as more reasonable and keeps their membership roster larger because moderate environmentalists are more willing to support them.

Both sides on this issue have spun arguments and tilted truths to support their cause. It's time for both sides to quit bickering over what's been said in the past and instead try to come up with a workable plan that protects the environment and preserves the mine company's ability to make a fair profit.

The mining company has got to be willing to put in ample safeguards on its tailings disposal so the mine does not damage the wildlife-rich land and waters around it. That is likely to cost more money, but if Coeur doesn't do that, it will spend even more fighting costly legal battles. And SEACC needs to show that it can be as successful at pushing ahead an environmentally sound mine as it has been at shutting down a project.

Working with Coeur to successfully forge a legal, environmentally defensible tailings plan would be a tremendous score not just for SEACC, but for all of Juneau.

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