My Turn: The reasons behind the Kensington lawsuit

Posted: Wednesday, September 28, 2005

On Sept. 12 the Sierra Club filed litigation over the Corps of Engineers' granting of a permit that allows Coeur d'Alene Mines to discharge 4.5 million tons of mine waste into a lake. A number of factors led to this decision.

First was the need to defend the Clean Water Act and prevent the setting of a horrible precedent. When the act was passed in 1972 it was designed to prevent the very thing Coeur has been given permission by the Corps to do. The backdrop that led to the passage of the act is grim. There were, and still are, an estimated 200,000 inactive and abandoned mines nationwide. Thousands of miles of streams and rivers throughout the West have been impaired by mining activity, more miles than are in the entire 'Wild and Scenic River' system. Forty percent of the headwaters of Western state watersheds are polluted by mining waste. As a result of this, the nation's largest and most expensive Superfund sites are abandoned mines, which continue to pollute our rivers, streams and lakes. When Congress enacted the Clean Water Act it explained, "Rivers, lakes and streams are being used to dispose of man's wastes rather than to support man's life and health," and, "The use of any river, lake, stream, or ocean as a waste treatment system is unacceptable." To once again allow our water bodies to be used as dumping grounds for untreated pollutants would be a giant step backwards.

A second factor in our decision to file litigation was the Bush administration's miserable record of putting corporate profits ahead of the public's interest, particularly when our nation's environment and the laws that protect it are at stake. It was the Bush administration Environmental Protection Agency that signed off on the proposal that allowed several responsible parties, including Coeur d'Alene Mines, to walk away from their cleanup liability in the Coeur d'Alene basin in Idaho. As a result the taxpayers will bear the burden of the cleanup, and there is uncertainty as to whether the area will ever again be safe for wildlife or people. It is Bush's EPA that is now proposing to let British Petroleum/Arco off the hook for cleaning up the nation's largest Superfund site. Adjacent to Butte, Mont., this abandoned mine site pollutes the Columbia and Clark Fork Rivers. Here the Bush administration has proposed to end all cleanup efforts and allow the site to pollute forever. And of course it is the Bush administration that has tried to circumvent the Clean Water Act by labeling toxic mine waste as benign "fill material." At the Kensington Mine, for the first time since the passage of the Clean Water Act, the Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency have decided to allow a mining company to discharge its waste into a lake. The history of the Bush administration's many efforts to weaken or abandon environmental protections means that we can't trust any of our resource agencies to be allowed to carry out their oversight duties unimpaired by political considerations. It is vital that citizen activists and public interest groups take up the slack and defend our laws and environment.

A third factor was the value of the lands and waters surrounding the Kensington Mine site. Readers of the Empire are no doubt already aware of the value of Berners Bay and its uplands as wildlife habitat. Sea lions, whales, harbor seals, salmon, herring, crab and eulachon frequent the bay's waters. Moose, wolf, deer, mountain goat, black bear and brown bear frequent the uplands. Up to a 100,000 migrating shorebirds use the intertidal areas for feeding. Up to a thousand bald eagles join them during the eulachon run. Berners Bay provides a recreation destination for anyone with a boat, skiff or kayak. It provides a wilderness experience and yet can be reached within minutes from the end of the road. Juneau is incredibly fortunate to have this resource next door. The Sierra Club has been working to protect it for over 30 years and will continue to do so in the future.

• Juneau resident Mark Rorick is chairman of the Juneau group of the Sierra Club.

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