Alaska editorial: Process hinders mine

Posted: Friday, October 10, 2008

Delays caused by unending permit issues have finally forced the laying off of about half of the 80 people who have been working to develop the Kensington Mine near Juneau.

It's a sad statement about the difficulty of starting a mine in this country.

Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp., the mine's owner, has been fighting for years to identify an acceptable method of disposing of its tailings at the mine site on the north side of Berners Bay. Its original, preferred plan, which involved converting a pond into a storage area, was approved by a variety of government agencies, but courts rejected it at the behest of environmental organizations.

Coeur then attempted to obtain a permit to spread its tailings as a low-water-content paste, an alternative that actually was backed by the same environmental groups that sued over the previous plan. However, the Environmental Protection Agency this fall asked for more information, potentially creating more delays. So late last month, Coeur said it had to cut its work force.

Coeur has already been working on this mine for years, incurring expenses with no income to offset it. This additional delay puts the project deeper under water before it even starts. So the company understandably decided to slow expenditures until it has a permit.

The EPA, in its defense, said it hadn't asked the company for a new plan. But its lack of approval apparently was enough to push Coeur over the edge. So Coeur asked the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the land on which the mining claims sit, to terminate its permitting process for the paste disposal.

The fate of this mine now appears to rest with the U.S. Supreme Court, which has accepted Coeur's appeal of a lower court decision that rejected its original plan to dispose of tailings in Lower Slate Lake. That disposal plan offended environmental groups because it converted the lake into an element of the mine's treatment system, but it was the safest, least intrusive way to deal with the rock waste. The method is not unique; it's similar to what is used by the Pogo mine outside Delta Junction, although at Pogo the affected water was a tiny creek rather than a lake.

Nevertheless, Coeur has placed a challenging case before nine justices in Washington, D.C. The legal issues are part of long-running disputes about what activities the Clean Water Act allows in "waters of the United States." It's unfortunate that Congress, federal agencies and the various interest groups cannot seem to settle those issues long enough to allow this "mine of the United States" to be developed.

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