The Tongass National Forest has approved Coeur Alaska's plan to develop the Kensington gold mine, dispose its tailings in a lake, and ferry mine workers and materials across Berners Bay.
The decision, announced Friday, pleased Coeur Alaska officials but was panned by Juneau environmentalists, who will continue to battle the project.
"This project is a long way from being a done deal," said Kat Hall, a grassroots organizer for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
Tongass National Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole said Friday the decision balances the economic and environmental needs of Juneau. His decision is subject to a 45-day period in which citizens can file appeals to the Forest Service.
The project needs permits from the state of Alaska, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Coeur Alaska officials said last week they hope to receive the permits soon enough to begin construction in the spring.
But two federal agencies involved in reviewing the proposed mine, 45 miles north of downtown Juneau, are raising questions about the environmental impacts of mine tailings to sub-alpine Lower Slate Lake and harm to endangered marine mammals from the mine's ferry traffic across Berners Bay.
The Environmental Protection Agency is particularly concerned about Kensington's mine tailings - which have failed several tests for invertebrate reproduction and survival - and how they could affect the long-term restoration of Lower Slate Lake.
The EPA considers the tailings potentially toxic but state officials disagree.
"Just because (invertebrates) weren't able to reproduce doesn't mean it's toxic," said Ed Fogels, project manager for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
Coeur Alaska believes the invertebrates didn't survive the tests, conducted in 2000, because the tailings are "inert or sterile."
Either way, the Forest Service is requiring Coeur Alaska to put organic material on the bottom of Lower Slate Lake.
It's a modification of the company's original idea "to add some organic material to the tailings in order to support the regeneration of aquatic life," said Rick Richins, Coeur Alaska's project director for the mine.
But that may not address all the EPA's concerns about the project. An EPA regional division chief said Friday that the project's environmental impacts should be assessed as a whole.
"We feel that's our responsibility and don't feel there should be any dispute about that," said Michael Gearheard, the EPA's regional director of the Office of Water and Watersheds.
The Forest Service and the state of Alaska are solidly behind the project and have issued strong words disputing the EPA's recent decision to advocate disposing mine tailings in a 160-acre dry stack along Lynn Canal as the least environmentally damaging alternative.
The EPA has veto power over the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' decision on whether to permit Coeur Alaska to dispose the tailings in Lower Slate Lake.
That veto power is rarely invoked, Gearheard said. And just because the EPA disagrees with the state and the Forest Service about the environmentally preferable disposal method doesn't mean the EPA will challenge the Corps of Engineers' decision, he said.
The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council contends that the Forest Service's decision is premature because the National Marine Fisheries Service hasn't finished its review of the project's effects on endangered sea mammals in Berners Bay.
The fisheries service believes transporting workers across Berners Bay could harm Steller sea lions and humpback whales, and is conducting a formal consultation under the Endangered Species Act. The agency recently told the Forest Service it will require the company to apply for permission to "take" sea lions and whales because of the likelihood that the ferry traffic could disturb the creatures' behavior or harm them in boat accidents.
The Corps of Engineers is reviewing proposed ferry docks at Cascade Point and Slate Creek Cove and Coeur Alaska's application to dump its mine tailings in Lower Slate Lake. Permits could be issued between February and May, said Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Pat Richardson, based in Anchorage.
The Corps of Engineers is looking at the concerns raised by the EPA and is requiring more information to prove which is the "least environmentally damaging but practicable" alternative for permitting the project.
"We need to see if there are any practicable alternatives," Richardson said.
The Forest Service's record of decision will be published in the Federal Register on Friday, triggering the beginning of the 45-day period in which citizens may file appeals.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.