Two Southeast Alaska environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit Monday to try to prevent Coeur Alaska from dumping rock waste from the Kensington Mine into a subalpine lake north of Juneau.
The suit's key complaint is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved a discharge permit that improperly applies new regulations under the Clean Water Act, said Russell Heath, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC).
The regulations, approved by the Bush administration, allow mining waste to be reclassified as fill material. The lawsuit alleges that that permit skirts a Clean Water Act requirement that such discharges meet a "zero" pollution standard.
"There are other options for mine waste disposal for the Kensington Mine," Heath said Monday.
The suit, co-filed by Haines-based Lynn Canal Conservation, also names the U.S. Forest Service, which approved Coeur Alaska's plan of operations.
The Corps' district regulatory branch chief, Larry Reeder, said his district office will have no comment until it has an opportunity to review the environmental groups' legal case. The case was filed in the United States District Court in Juneau Monday afternoon.
Heath said SEACC and Coeur Alaska had confidential negotiations this summer about the Kensington Mine but were unable to reach agreement about the proposed discharges to Lower Slate Lake.
"It is in violation of the Clean Water Act, very clearly. Our distress is that we alerted the agencies and Coeur about this a long time ago," Heath said.
Coeur Alaska looked at other alternatives to discharging to the lake, which would have a 500-foot dam.
The company decided that "this is the best project, both economically and environmentally," said Rick Richins, an environmental consultant for the company, a subsidiary of Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp., based in Boise, Idaho.
The lake's population of Dolly Varden char are not expected to survive during the dumping but the company claims it can restore the lake after the mine is closed.
Richins said he did not know yet if the lawsuit would have a slowing effect on the company's busy summer construction schedule. Construction started July 1, immediately after the project got its final approval.
Earthjustice, a law firm with a branch office in Juneau, is handling the lawsuit for the two environmental groups and hasn't filed an injunction at this point to stop work at the mine.
"We probably won't for several weeks, to see what comes of this," Heath said. SEACC is in favor of an "expedited" judicial review of the case, he said.
So far, Coeur Alaska has spent about $150 million on developing the mine, Richins said.
The company has also hired a number of contractors based in Juneau and other Alaska cities and could employ about 200 workers during its 10- to 15-year life span.
Juneau consultant Murray Walsh said the lawsuit "is not unexpected but it is very disappointing."
Walsh, an outgoing board member of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, said he believes if this mine "isn't good enough for SEACC, then no mine is good enough for SEACC."
Coeur Alaska's 1998 plan to build a dry tailings stack on the east side of Lynn Canal would be environmentally preferable, Heath replied.
In the late 1990s, Coeur "had a fully designed, fully permitted mine," Heath said.
Coeur has estimated that dumping its mine tailings into Lower Slate Lake is a hundredth the cost of stacking them on the east side of Lynn Canal.
Heath said the court's decision in the Kensington case could have profound implications elsewhere in Alaska.
"We're potentially seeing a huge increase in mining activity across the state," said Scott Brennan, director of Alaskans for Responsible Mining, a statewide mining watchdog group.
Some fishermen and environmentalists are watching the Kensington project because they are worried that the Pebble Mine north of Lake Iliamna could also try to skirt the Clean Water Act.
The Kensington Mine has received support from Juneau area gillnetters, who were displeased with the previous proposal that would put tailings in a dry stack facility on the east side of Lynn Canal.
But Bristol Bay driftnetters who catch sockeye from the massive watershed where the proposed Pebble Mine site is located have a different point of view.
The driftnetters are worried "that this opens the door for other companies to propose Alaska lakes as waste dumps for mines," said Warren Johnson, vice president of the Bristol Bay Driftnetters Association.
The Pebble Mine has not yet entered its permitting stage.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at email@example.com.