My turn: EPA rules permit process

Posted: Sunday, October 05, 2008

If ever there was a case of no good deed going unpunished it would be the Kensington Mine. And if ever there was a more disingenuous letter to the editor about the mine, it would be hard to find one that tops that of local Sierra Club leader, Mark Rorick, which appeared in the Wednesday Empire. For the first time, and well after the fact, Rorick expressed support for the paste tailings option - until that letter all he has supported is the study of the option.

To set the record straight, Coeur pulled out of the environmental assessment (EA) process for very good reasons. I know, because I was at the meeting with federal officials when it became apparent the process was unraveling despite all of the assurances to Juneau and the people of Southeast Alaska.

I write in support of Coeur Alaska because the company has more than lived up to its commitments to Alaska Natives. During the construction of Kensington, close to half of all workers were Alaska Native or locals employed by Alaska Native businesses. And most employees were Alaska residents.

Such good faith should have been reflected in how government officials responded to the re-permitting process. But instead of good faith, federal officials (primarily the EPA) mishandled the environmental assessment - either through indifference, incompetence, misconduct, or all three.

On Sept. 12, Bill Martin, president of the Tlingit-Haida Central Council, hosted a tribal consultation session attended by myself, other representatives of the council, and most of the federal agencies involved in the environmental assessment.

It was during this meeting that an official of the EPA revealed to us that the applicant, Coeur Alaska, would be required to analyze a new alternative, a dry stack facility similar to one of the alternatives under consideration, but with a new configuration proposed by a low level EPA employee.

The EPA's proposal was so out of line that I questioned who was in charge of the environmental assessment. The representatives of the U.S. Forest Service, supposedly the lead agency, sat on their hands and did not question the proposal, nor did any other federal agency present.

In the middle of this discussion, officials of the U.S. Corps of Engineers revealed that under no circumstances would they commit to a timeline for final permitting following the assessment process.

As the discussion continued, it became ever more apparent that instead of the paste tailings disposal plan, the EPA favored the dry stack tailings plan as being the "least damaging practical alternative."

Even to a layman like myself, the proposed reconfiguration of the dry stack alternative made no sense. It would have required the company to redesign the dry stack option to reduce the pile's footprint, but increase the height from 160 feet to about 210 feet. The supposed benefit: eight less acres of muskeg would be affected.

Even a hard-core opponent of the mine like Rorick favors the paste tailings option over the dry stacks proposal. As to how expensive or quick it would be to redesign was answered by the company, which chose to risk a court decision over throwing more money into an apparently endless permit process.

The problem Rorick did not address directly was the one the environmentalists and their agency friends have found themselves in by overreaching: the likelihood that their worst fears will be realized if the Supreme Court overturns the 9th Circuit Court's decision that brought a halt to the Kensington mine and put hundreds of people out of work. If this happens, they have only themselves to blame.

• Gordon Jackson is director of transportation for Tligit Haida Central Council. In 1994, while president and CEO of Kake Tribal Corp., he helped organize the Berners Bay Consortium, an affiliation of three area Native corporations dedicated to recruiting, training and placing Alaska Natives in jobs with the Kensington Mine.

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