Environmentalists, firm agree to mediate over Kensington Mine

Posted: Sunday, October 09, 2005

Three environmental groups and the developers of the Kensington Mine have agreed to enter mediation over their legal battle about tailings disposal at the gold mine, northwest of Juneau, according to Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho.

The proposed mediation would be sponsored by the city, which may provide a third-party mediator to help resolve the environmental dispute, Botelho said Friday.

The Juneau Assembly will not vote on Botelho's proposal for the city to sponsor the mediation until Monday, but Idaho-based Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp. and the environmentalists told the mayor on Friday they are willing to mediate.

Previous negotiations between the company and environmentalists over Coeur Alaska's plan to dump tailings into Lower Slate Lake, on the west side of Berners Bay, failed this summer. Coeur Alaska is a subsidiary of Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp., based in Idaho.

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, the Sierra Club and Haines-based Lynn Canal Conservation Council filed suit on Sept. 12 in U.S. District Court in Juneau, claiming that the mine's lake discharge permit approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violates the Clean Water Act.

"I have no illusion that this is going to be easy," Botelho said. "This is going to require creativity. Hopefully, a third-party perspective may help move this along."

Botelho said he spoke to Dennis Wheeler, chief executive officer of Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp., which owns the mine on Friday. Wheeler told the mayor the company was willing to enter mediation.

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, the Sierra Club and Lynn Canal Conservation of Haines, provided a letter to Botelho on Friday stating they also were willing to mediate.

"It could be a win-win solution for everybody," said Buck Lindekugel, a staff attorney for SEACC. "In our minds, a successful mediation would resolve the dispute promptly to protect clean water and allow mine construction to proceed," he said.

Coeur officials could not be reached for comment over the weekend.

Botelho said he expects some "nominal" cost to the city for sponsoring the discussions but he has an offer from a mediator who is willing to step in free of charge.

"There will be staff time involved. There may be some background work that will need to be done," said Botelho, who expects to tap the city's law department.

The city of Juneau was pressured by the Southeast Conference, a regional organization of business and civic leaders, to intervene against the environmental groups' lawsuit to block the dumping of Kensington Mine tailings into a sub-alpine lake.

The Murkowski administration and Coeur have already intervened against the lawsuit, filed against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service. Gov. Murkowski urged city governments to intervene against the environmentalists as well.

The legal dispute centers over the two federal agencies' approval of the company's plan to dump millions of tons of tailings, or rock waste, in Lower Slate Lake.

Both state officials and environmentalists claim the lawsuit has broad significance because its outcome will likely affect future mine discharge permits, such as those for the proposed Pebble Mine near Lake Illiamna on the Alaska Peninsula.

The environmental groups said Friday they hope to get a commitment from Coeur Alaska that it will not proceed with construction for Slate Lake tailings disposal during the mediation.

"If Coeur will commit promptly to refrain from any such construction, we would be willing to refrain from filing a motion for preliminary injunction. We (would) participate in the mediation either way, but disputed injunction proceedings would take time and impede efforts to mediate the case," said SEACC executive director Russell Heath and co-signers Mark Rorick and Scott Carey, respectively of the Sierra Club Juneau chapter and Lynn Canal Conservation.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.

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