My turn: The greatest treasure in Alaska is clean water

Posted: Friday, September 16, 2005

Alaska's clean waters are one of our state's great treasures. Clean water - fresh or salt, moving or still - is a resource of tremendous value, biologically, aesthetically and economically. Our waters teem with life, provide us with opportunities for recreation and quiet solace, and support thousands of families.

The economic importance of Alaska's clean water cannot be overstated. The fishing industry is one of the state's largest private employers. Fish provide income and sustenance to communities along the coast and, following the rivers, deep into the interior. Visitors come from around the world to watch the whales, cast for steelhead in our streams, and watch the eagles, ducks, and thousands of other birds nourished by our waters.

So important are our clean waters that even the perception of pollution threatens our ability to market our fish to the rest of the world. A key factor that enables Alaska fishermen to compete with farmed salmon is the purity of our own salmon.

Alaskans know this, and rush to defend any threat to their waters; witness the recent outcry from communities, fishing organizations, tribes and conservation groups against proposals to discharge pollutants into salmon streams and to spray pesticides that end up in our waters.

In defense of this valuable resource, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and co-plaintiffs filed suit this week challenging the Army Corps of Engineers' permit that allows the Kensington gold mine to dispose of millions of tons of chemically-processed mine waste in a mountain lake.

In clear violation of the Clean Water Act, and of common sense, the Army Corps authorized the dumping of mine waste into Lower Slate Lake. This will be the first time since the Clean Water Act became law that a mining company has disposed of chemically processed mine waste in a lake. A generation ago, we, as a nation, committed ourselves to responsibly managing our lakes, rivers and seas. In 1972, President Nixon signed the Clean Water Act and today it is one of America's greatest success stories. Since its passage, we have protected and restored thousands of lakes and rivers - safeguarding public health, keeping waters livable for fish and wildlife, and making our communities and neighborhoods better places to live.

Dumping mine waste into a lake is an enormous step backwards. It goes against everything Americans have accomplished in the last 30 years.

Some may dismiss Lower Slate Lake as inconsequential, but the Army Corps' action will have national and state-wide effects. With Kensington, the Army Corps is establishing a precedent. Once set, other mines will also dump their wastes in other lakes and streams. Concerned citizens in western Alaska are watching the Kensington with tremendous apprehension. If Kensington can dump its waste into a lake, what would that allow the gigantic Pebble mine, with its estimated billion or more tons of toxic waste, to do in the rich Iliamna watershed?

It is important to remember that the mining industry is one of the nation's largest industrial polluters. Many of this country's largest Superfund sites were created by the mining industry. After working so hard to restore our lakes and rivers, do Americans want to return to the days when public waters were used as industrial waste dumps?

This doesn't need to happen. There are alternatives. For example, the proposed and fully permitted 1997 Kensington design used a land-based waste disposal facility.

Early in the review process for the current mine, SEACC alerted the Army Corps, other federal agencies and the company that discharging mine waste into a lake was illegal, that it violated the Clean Water Act. Unfortunately, the Army Corps chose to move ahead, side-stepping its responsibility to the public, and approved a mine design that was the most profitable for the company. SEACC then talked directly with Coeur, but the company's decision remained unchanged.

This action is about clean water. It's about keeping Alaska's waters clean for the people of Alaska. It's about safeguarding jobs around the state - the fishing, guiding, and tourism jobs that depend on clean water. It's about maintaining Alaska's high quality of life. It's about passing Alaska's treasures on to future generations clean and unpolluted.

• Russell Heath is the executive director of Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

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