The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council announced Wednesday it will sue the Forest Service because the agency approved the Kensington gold mine before marine scientists completed a review of the project's impacts on endangered sea mammals.
Tongass National Forest officials' decision for the mine is scheduled for publication on the U.S. Federal Register today, triggering a 45-day appeal period.
SEACC contends the Forest Service violated Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act requiring that no federal agency action pose harm to endangered and threatened species or their habitat, unless the agency receives an exemption.
The National Marine Fisheries Service recently began a formal consultation with the Forest Service on the effects of mine-related ferry traffic and two docks in Berners Bay, 45 miles north of Juneau, on Steller sea lions, humpback whales and herring.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has until April 1 to finish its consultation.
Kensington Mine developer Coeur Alaska and the Tongass National Forest claim they can proceed without NMFS' findings because the national forest lacks jurisdiction over Berners Bay.
NMFS officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Shortly before the Forest Service announced its decision, NFMS officials told Forest Service officials that their proposed measures to protect endangered marine species and their habitat in Berners Bay were inadequate, said Buck Lindekugel, SEACC staff attorney, citing a letter from NMFS to the Forest Service.
Tongass National Forest spokesman Dennis Neill said SEACC "has every right to seek legal redress if they disagree with what we are doing."
But Neill added, "You'd think that (NMFS) would be telling us if we are breaking the law. ... If NMFS is okay with how the process is going, maybe it's not as big an issue."
Coeur Alaska's project director Rick Richins said Wednesday the company is still negotiating with NMFS on protecting whales, sea lions and herring in Berners Bay. He said measures included in the Forest Service decision - such as fueling boats outside of Berners Bay during the bay's herring spawning - are sufficient.
Alternative proposals advanced by NMFS could close down mine-related marine traffic in Berners Bay for seven to nine weeks, costing the company $2 million, Richins said.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at email@example.com.