My turn: Semantics versus science at the Kensington Mine

Posted: Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A lthough disappointed that the Kensington mediation efforts failed, I am certainly not surprised. The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council restated its stand in the Empire before the first session even started. Prepare for the next barrage of misinformation as the lawsuit's day in court approaches, and threat of an injunction looms. Most letters will avoid or ignore science or facts. As one once said, it's "a debate over semantics" (I rest my case). If you disagree, regardless of your credentials, then you are "irresponsible and not credible."

We'll still hear the word "toxic" to describe the tailings. They love that word and don't want to let it go. Yet, even SEACC's Web site instructs writers to use "chemically treated" or "processed" now. Here's the process they're referring to: The chemicals added to the crushed ore slurry create a froth that "captures" the gold and floats it to the top. The gold-bearing froth (along with most of the chemicals) is removed and becomes the concentrate sent offsite for further processing. The remaining slurry is pumped to the tailings storage facility. If it's a debate over semantics, then semantically speaking, one could say the tailings actually aren't chemically treated - the ore is. I'm sure there are some residual traces of the chemicals in the tailings, and I guess when they use their chemical names, potassium amyl xanthate and methyl isobutyl carbinol, it's supposed to make them sound more toxic.

We will also hear again of the test that indicated the tailings were toxic, and one that was inconclusive. As usual, there will be no mention that the one failing test often referred to was an extreme test on the smallest part of the Dolly Varden's food source, or that in one lab test, more organisms died in their native sediment than in the tailings. That's called selective semantics. The 400 to 1,000 Dolly Varden in the 20-acre lake feed primarily on midges (about 73 percent of the lake's larger invertebrates are midges, with amphipods and other critters being the rest). In five tests, the average tailings survival rate for two species of amphipods and midges was 81 percent and 83 percent, respectively, compared to 64% in Lynn Canal sediments. That's called facts. With semantics, you don't need all the facts to make conclusions. Where else can you tally the votes as five no, one aye, and one abstain - then declare the ayes have it. Also, they will conveniently forget to mention that when the mine closes, the fish will be replaced, and eventually, twice as many Dolly Varden will be munching midges in a 58-acre lake.

They will tell us again that the tailings contain high levels of copper, mercury and lead. High compared to what, bottled water? Identical tests of the sediment in Lower Slate Lake and Lynn Canal contain higher levels of all three of these metals, as well as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, nickel and zinc. Compared to the tailings, the natural sediments are high in metals. That's reverse semantics.

"Dangerous precedent" and "violation of the Clean Water Act" will be in most letters. Allowing the Kensington to place tailings into Lower Slate Lake will, indeed, set a precedent. This is not, however, a violation of the Clean Water Act. Disposal of material classified as fill has always been allowed. The Kensington's tailings are not toxic, so they were classified as fill. That is how unique the Kensington is. I suppose that any mine in the U.S. with nontoxic tailings could be allowed to classify them as fill, then place them into a natural body of fresh water that happens to be close by. Anyone care to make book on the odds of that happening? Successful mediation was a better bet. By the way, I realize it's a difference of scale, but where was the outcry when mine (quarry) rock was placed into Gold Creek for salmon habitat enhancement, and dredged material (some of it mine tailings) placed into the channel for harbor expansion?

I suppose the bottom line is that each of you will have to choose what to believe. That is the inherent problem with semantics. Take the time to think about it while relaxing with a nice hot cup of dihydrogen oxide and 4-oxo-5-thiocyanato-pentnoic acid.

• Chris DeWitt is a geologist living in Douglas who provided Environmental Protection Agency oversight at Superfund sites prior to moving to Alaska.

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