Agencies raise concerns over mine impacts

Regulators differ on whether waste from Kensington will hurt sub-alpine lake

Posted: Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Two federal agencies are taking a dim view of the proposed Kensington Mine's environmental impacts as the project heads toward a major milestone next week.

Tongass National Forest officials plan to issue a record of decision on the proposed gold mine for public comment next Friday. But U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Marine Fisheries Service officials are locked in a disagreement with mine developer Coeur Alaska, the state of Alaska, and U.S. Forest Service officials over the possible effects of disposing mine waste in a sub-alpine lake and ferrying workers and materials through Berners Bay.

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and Friends of Berners Bay claimed a victory Monday afternoon after a regional Environmental Protec- tion Agency officer sent a letter to Tongass National Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole noting EPA's concern about the long-term ecological consequences of disposing the mine's rock waste in Lower Slate Lake, on the western arm of Berners Bay, 45 miles north of downtown Juneau.

"This should be a huge wake-up call to Juneau," said Kat Hall, an organizer for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

On Dec. 9, Cole responded with his own critique of EPA's assertions. Coeur officials could not be reached for comment by press time on Monday.

EPA concluded Coeur Alaska's least environmentally damaging option is storing Kensington Mine tailings in a 160-acre dry stack alongside Lynn Canal - as permitted by the U.S. Corps of Engineers in 1998. The Corps pronounced the 1998 plan economically feasible at a time when gold prices were about 50 percent lower than they are today, wrote EPA's regional director of water and watersheds, Michael Gearheard.

"What EPA scientists are telling us is that Coeur's media spin that their (lake disposal plan) is cleaner and better is false. It's about padding shareholders' pockets, not protecting Berners Bay," said SEACC's Hall.

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources came to a different conclusion. It supports disposing the tailings in Lower Slate Lake. It also analyzed the costs and told the U.S. Forest Service that building and operating a Lynn Canal tailings stack will result in an unprofitable mine.

EPA officials' Dec. 1 letter came with a major caveat - they don't believe they have adequate information to evaluate the project because the Corps and NFMS haven't completed their review of proposed, mine-related activities in Lower Slate Lake and Berners Bay.

NFMS recently began a formal Endangered Species Act review after it determined that mine-related marine traffic in Berners Bay will likely harm Steller sea lions and humpback whales. NMFS has until April 1 to complete its review.

The Corps hasn't begun analyzing whether Lower Slate Lake is the "least environmentally damaging" disposal option and won't complete its review until mid-February or mid-March.

Hall, of SEACC, criticized Tongass officials for issuing their record of decision months before other agencies complete their reviews.

But Juneau District Ranger Pete Griffin said the Corps needed his agency to issue a record of decision to trigger its own review. The Forest Service also believes it does not need to wait for a NMFS decision because the agency has no jurisdiction over Berners Bay waters, he said.

"It's an incredibly complex project," Griffin said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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