Mediation between the parties in a Kensington Mine lawsuit failed on Thursday, and the case now heads to court.
Three environmental groups - the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, the Sierra Club and Haines-based Lynn Canal Conservation Council - are suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for permitting the gold mine owner to dump its rock tailings into Lower Slate Lake, located northwest of Juneau at Berners Bay.
The Murkowski administration and mine owner Idaho-based Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp. joined as parties in the lawsuit, intervening on behalf of the defendant and the U.S. Forest Service, which is also named in the lawsuit.
Now the city of Juneau will have to ask itself the same question - whether it will get involved.
The city received pressure earlier this month from the Southeast Conference, a group of civic and business leaders, and the state to intervene in the lawsuit.
Instead, the city chose to host mediation talks between the parties, with former state Attorney General Av Gross volunteering his legal services for the city.
The meeting was closed to the public and parties said that details of the session are confidential.
Mayor Bruce Botelho said he expects a motion to be made at Monday night's Juneau Assembly meeting to involve the city in the lawsuit.
Rather than dispatching an attorney, filing a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the mine may be more appropriate, Botelho said.
Intervening would commit the city to being a party in the lawsuit. But Botelho said if the city went that route, it would likely have little to contribute to the large effort. U.S. Department of Justice and Alaska Department of Law attorneys already are working the case.
"The courts don't decide cases on the basis of how many lawyers are involved," said Botelho, also a former state attorney general.
SEACC Executive Director Russell Heath said his staff will decide soon whether to proceed with a preliminary injunction or an expedited briefing schedule.
"We are going to do whatever we can to move this forward as fast as possible," Heath said.
In the meantime, Coeur officials said the company will continue to develop the mine as planned. The mine has been fully permitted by state and federal agencies.
The judge will review whether dumping the tailings into the lake violates the Clean Water Act.
SEACC is pushing for Coeur to come up with alternatives for depositing the waste. Other mines use a "dry-stack tailings" method, in which the waste is dumped above ground and left in a pile. Depending on the amount of chemicals in the rocks, a liner may be used to prevent chemicals from draining into the soil, groundwater, or nearby lakes and rivers.
"If done right, I believe we can have both a mine and clean water," Heath said.
Kat Hall, mining and water quality organizer for SEACC, said Coeur was interested in the dry stacking method in 1998, but passed on it because it was not economical for the company until the price of gold went up.
Hall said in 1998 the price of gold was $400 an ounce, and now it is $470. In recent discussions, Coeur told the environmental group that dry stacking was still not affordable.
But Luke Russell, director of environmental affairs for Coeur d'Alene Mines, said the company's reasons for not pursuing the above-ground method go beyond economics.
Dumping the rocks on wetlands would have more of an environmental effect than depositing the waste into the lake, Russell said. Also, the method would burn more energy.
Dry stacking was reviewed during the permitting process, and state and federal agencies chose the lake as the best solution, Russell said.
Andrew Petty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org