My Turn: EPA should rescind its demands on mine

Posted: Friday, September 26, 2008

The community of Juneau, the mine workers and the environmental organizations believed that the Environmental Protection Agency was serving everyone's best interests and honoring their consensus agreement by proceeding with Coeur Alaska's permit for paste tailings storage.

According to the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council's Web site, "The paste tailings plan is the best, and fastest, option to move this project forward in a way that protects our clean water and natural resources." (quoting Russell Heath, executive director of SEACC).

We have recently discovered that instead, the EPA has asked Coeur to launch a series of studies for dry stack tailings, delaying the permit process by at least several months. In light of previous delays caused by the EPA and this unreasonable move to create a new issue where there is no need for one, Coeur Alaska has chosen to await the outcome of its case which is now before the Supreme Court. A favorable decision will restore the original Kensington 404 permits, which had been determined by all federal agencies to be the environmentally preferred option.

Along with the community of Juneau, we are disappointed that the current process with the EPA has come to an end. Having been at many of the meetings, I understand Coeur Alaska's frustrations. The EPA expanded the scope of permitting to include a dry stack tailings storage facility, an alternative that will be very expensive, extremely wasteful of energy, unnecessarily contribute to our carbon footprint and create a highly visible man-made structure on Lynn Canal. How does that serve the community or our environment?

This decision is the direct result of a federal agency over-reaching. The EPA had the opportunity to focus its attention on the paste tailings plan; a plan that all sides agreed to. But instead it insisted that Coeur Alaska study yet another alternative - EPA is asking too much, too late.

Our interest at the BBC is in getting Alaskan people back to work as soon as possible, so we see this as a setback. From the company's perspective, awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court may be shorter and less costly than going through a permitting process without apparent end.

Environmentalists and some officials of the EPA have long opposed the Lower Slate Lakes tailings disposal plan. Now, thanks to additional delays imposed by the EPA on the environmental assessment of the paste tailings plan - a plan that won the approval of local environmentalists - Coeur Alaska was forced to drop out of the EA process and await a decision by the Supreme Court.

If, as the environmentalists believe, the Lower Slate Lakes tailings disposal plan represents a "dangerous assault on the Clean Water Act," it is hard to view the EPA's actions as anything short of reckless considering that the Supreme Court has reversed the 9th Circuit Court in 9 out of 10 cases.

• Randy Wanamaker is executive director of BBC Human Resource Development Corp.

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