Air, water quality issues could delay Kensington mine opening

Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2001

Developers of the Kensington mine may be optimistic about how long it will take to get government permits, according to government regulators. And environmentalists have concerns about Coeur Alaska's latest effort to open the underground gold mine 45 miles north of Juneau.

Coeur Alaska Senior Vice President Rick Richins told the Juneau Chamber of Commerce last week that the mine could get its necessary government permits in 12 to 14 months.

He estimated last week that opening the Kensington mine would stimulate Southeast's economy with $155 million in construction costs, 325 jobs at peak construction, and 225 jobs during operation, plus $21 million in local purchases during the anticipated 10-year life of the mine.

The Kensington project is "not a big blip on our radar right now," said Sharmon Stambaugh of the Anchorage office of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "We haven't set aside time to work on it."

In the past, DEC had issued Coeur a permit to discharge tailings into Sherman Creek, which runs into Lynn Canal. Sockeye fishermen were unhappy with that solution, and Coeur worked to address their concerns, Stambaugh said. Tailings are the crushed rock left over after valuable minerals are extracted.

The latest Coeur proposal would eliminate dry tailing stacks adjacent to Comet Beach, stacks that would have been visible from Lynn Canal.

The new plan, which requires a U.S. Forest Service permit, calls for using lower Slate Lake, a 40-acre muskeg located adjacent to the historic Jualin Mine property, Richins said in a letter to the Empire dated Nov. 13. Tailings placed on the lake bottom would be capped when the mine closed, he said.

"Extensive studies have shown the tailings to be inert," Richins wrote.

Stambaugh said putting tailings in Slate Lake would raise the water level and require a permit.

"As far as what would be the snags or blocks to doing this, this would be taking a natural water body and putting tailings into it," she said. "Tailings are considered a solid waste so they would also have to get a solid waste-tailings permit from us."

Stambaugh said caching tailings in shallow lakes has been accomplished in Canadian mines to the satisfaction of Canadian environmental agencies.

Gershon Cohen, a Haines water quality consultant familiar with Coeur's years of Kensington proposals, is skeptical that impounding tailings would not impact the lake.

"This is not a 'muskeg,' " Cohen said this morning. "It is a 40-acre body of water that you could canoe on, with Dolly Varden and other fish."

Cohen added that three decades of indecisiveness by the federal government on definitions of "water" and "waters of the United States," which determine which regulations apply, have contributed to Coeur's expectations about the project getting approval. He said pinning down those definitions will be crucial to deciding if Coeur should be given a go-ahead.

In a telephone interview from his Boise, Idaho, home on Wednesday, Richins said he is optimistic the gold mine could be permitted within 12 to 14 months.

"That's the schedule that I presented to the Forest Service - and it's tentative," he said. "That's the target."

Stambaugh said DEC has yet to talk with the Forest Service and the U.S. Environmental Projection Agency about the revised project.

"With what is being proposed now, the footprint would be much less and Coeur would save a lot of money," Stambaugh said, "but we have to look at the regulatory framework and have inter-agency discussions about the use of that lake."

The Kensington project also needs approval from the EPA. Coeur hasn't presented the agency with its latest proposal, said Bill Riley, mining coordinator for the region that includes Alaska, from EPA's Seattle office Wednesday.

Riley considers 12 to 14 months to open the mine as "highly optimistic." An average time to issue permits would be a year to a year and a half, he said.

Coeur also is seeking permits through Eric Ouderkirk of the Juneau Ranger District of the Forest Service and Ed Fogels, at-large mine project coordinator with the state Department of Natural Resources.

Ouderkirk was not available for comment. Fogels, who is coordinating the state's involvement, said the mine is mostly a federal project because it is on Forest Service land.

"There are tideland permits and a coastal consistency review we would have to do," he said. "The dam to raise the level of the lake would need state approval as would solid waste and reclamation.

"If it were just state (permits), it would go through quickly, because we have a fairly minor involvement," Fogels said on Wednesday. "It's great that with the low gold prices the mining industry is so active now, but we have not received actual applications from Coeur."

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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