Eric Twelker's My Turn in the Juneau Empire on Sept. 4, though it directed as many insults toward the plaintiffs in the Kensington litigation as he could fit in, did raise some important issues.
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Twelker laid out a scenario that he suggests could be used as an alternative method allowing Coeur to use Lower Slate Lake as a tailings disposal site.
Recently Coeur spokesperson Rich Richins has mentioned that Coeur is also looking at an alternative, presumably the same as Twelker's. He has said this in the context of the company's statement that they are accepting an offer made by plaintiffs in the Kensington case to work with Coeur to find a solution for the tailings disposal problem. This alternative method would be to completely drain the lake, permanently divert all inflowing water sources that supply the lake with water, put some non-tailings fill into the remaining lake basin, say it is no longer a water body of the United States but is instead uplands, and then deposit the mine tailings onto or into the remains of the lake basin.
There are a number of concerns in regards to this idea. First, it was made quite clear, repeatedly, publicly, privately and most emphatically, that the offer to work with Coeur does not extend to any tailings disposal plan that requires the use of Lower Slate Lake. Our offer was and remains to be that we are willing to work with Coeur to find a dry stack solution that does not involve the use of Lower Slate Lake. This offer has been on the table for more than three years. We now have gone a step farther in that we have offered to cooperate in finding a legal way, including exploring temporary storage solutions, to expedite the permitting process. This was done specifically to address the concerns of Coeur and their workforce about delays to production startup that would result from having to go through a new permitting process.
Then there is another issue in regards to Twelker's proposal to turn Lower Slate Lake into uplands. The idea has been on our radar screen for at least two years and therefore is not new to us. Putting technical issues aside for the moment, we view the proposal as another attempt to do an end run around the Clean Water Act. Having failed in the last attempt, which followed an attempt to use ocean dumping for tailings disposal, they are apparently looking at yet another way to persuade the agencies and the courts that lake disposal of processed mine tailings is legal. While putting clean fill into wetlands and allowing certain types of development to occur, such as the building of homes, is commonplace, this has never been done with a lake for the purpose of disposing of mine waste, nor should it be. It would rightly be seen as another attempt to evade the clear purpose and intent of the Clean Water Act after the previous attempt failed. I believe the courts would share this view of such a proposal. It would set a precedent that is as bad as, or even worse, than Coeur's previous ocean dumping and lake dumping proposals. Mining companies all over the country would be thinking, "Oh boy, if they can use lakes so can we".
Coming back to technical issues, it is very doubtful that Coeur could divert all the sources of water that now drain into Lower Slate Lake, including those that would seep in from underneath, and then keep them diverted in perpetuity. The mine tailings would still be located in a natural basin below slopes that generate more than 23 separate inflows into the lake. The tailings would still be perched above a water course that flows into Berners Bay. Mine tailings, no matter what form they are in, dry or wet, should not be situated in this fashion.
Instead of spending more time and money, instead of doing more studies to boost yet another operating plan that will only engender more conflict, it is time for Coeur to move forward with permitting a legal mine.
Mark Rorick is chairman of the Juneau Group of the Sierra Club.
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