Empire editorial: Accord could lead to a mine solution

Posted: Friday, November 16, 2007

The Kensington Mine's owner and environmental groups acted this week in a way that may come as a surprise to many Juneau residents - they acted in agreement.

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Mine operator Coeur Alaska, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Lynn Canal Conservation and Juneau's Sierra Club jointly announced Thursday a new plan for disposing of Kensington Mine tailings.

This is a major step forward since Coeur's past tailings disposal plan - deemed illegal in federal court - has been the biggest roadblock to opening the controversial mine.

Coeur is now proposing that it deal with the tailings, the mine waste from ore after the metal is extracted, with what is called "paste technology."

Tailings paste is a dense, viscous mixture similar to wet concrete, with very little water running off and potentially posing problems. A state permitting official also believes the paste plan may make more economic sense for the mine.Coeur now wants to place paste tailings on Comet Beach, not far from the mine about 45 miles northwest of downtown. This would eliminate the use of Lower Slate Lake for tailings disposal, which the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared illegal.

Leaders of the conservation groups say the paste tailings plan at Comet Beach is less environmentally risky than others that have been proposed for the gold mine.

They're not saying they won't ever file another lawsuit against the mine or that they'll encourage their members not to speak out against the plan at the public hearings required for the plan to receive permits.

But for this one moment, these groups and the mining company are coming forward in unity, saying they'll ask the U.S. Forest Service to review this plan.

This is a major step forward in a battle people have been fighting for more than 15 years.

Leaders on both sides recently have called on others to dial back the rhetoric and drop the vitriol that's inflamed the debate. That has helped move negotiations forward.

The new proposal still must clear many hurdles before it wins final approval from permitting agencies.

But both sides deserve congratulations for negotiating a plan that could help move the mine closer to opening day. It's also a proposal that could reduce potential damage to the pristine area around the mine.

Let's hope this new bud of accord will blossom into ongoing discussion that will lead to the opening of a productive and environmentally sound mine.

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