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Coeur Alaska responded to a decision by federal scientists to look into whether Lynn Canal herring are threatened or endangered, saying that such a listing could have "significant impacts to critical aspects of the Kensington project."
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A memo was distributed by Kensington permits expert Rick Richins to those who attended a tour of the gold mine on Wednesday. Mine officials flew about 60 people to the site, about 45 miles north of downtown, this week from area businesses, organizations and state offices to update them on construction at the mine.
The memo raised concerns about what would happen if herring are listed, or if Berners Bay is designated as a critical habitat for the fish.
"This could preclude construction of the Cascade Point dock, curtail operations of the fully constructed Slate Cove Dock facility and other marine terminals in the area during the herring run, further restrict or preclude worker commute vessels during the herring spawning season, and further restrict barge and other boat traffic to the project. Such a designation could also restrict or prohibit other transportation related development within the Berners Bay area," the memo said.
The mine has completed construction of its multimillion-dollar mill, sewage treatment and mine waste water treatment facilities. A vital permit for the mine that allows it to dispose of tailings has been hung up in court, so the mill cannot start processing ore yet. Tailings are ground waste rock from which metal has been extracted.
"The mine is quite developed. There's already good access to the ore body," Richins said.
The National Marine Fisheries Service announced this month it will be reviewing whether stocks of Pacific herring in Lynn Canal should be listed as threatened or endangered. The decision came in response to a petition filed by the Juneau chapter of the Sierra Club in April.
For Lynn Canal herring to be listed, it must be shown that they are a distinct and separate population.
Herring populations have declined 85 percent in the canal since the 1980s, and Berners Bay is the only remaining spawning ground in the area for the fish.
The project already has a well-developed plan for minimizing impacts on the bay, according to the memo, which was distributed by Richins, who has worked on permits for the Kensington Mine for more than 20 years. That plan includes adjusting boating routes and fueling frequencies during herring spawning season.
The Kensington Mine has cost $238 million to date, most of it going toward building the on-site mill, which will produce concentrated ore. The mill will process 250 tons of rock per hour and draw gold from the ore using organic compounds that will cause the gold to float. The concentrated ore, which resembles talcum powder, will then be shipped south, most likely to Canada, for refining.
Coeur and three environmental groups are waiting to hear whether the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will grant another hearing on plans for the mine's tailings.
The mine has identified 1.3 million ounces of gold reserves at the site, plus additional resources that could bring that total up to 2 million ounces, an amount that would fetch $1.45 billion at today's gold prices of $725 per ounce.
About 80 people are working at the mine right now, according to Richins. The mine will employ 200 people when it starts operations. About 90 percent of those will be from the local work force. Mine operations are ready to commence, Richins said, because there is already access to the gold-containing rock through a completed three-mile, 18-foot by 16-foot tunnel built through the mountain.