My Turn: Corps' responsibility is to protect clean water

Posted: Monday, December 26, 2005

Here's a suggestion for a New Year's resolution for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Let's do things right. Let's protect clean water for the sake of the families that depend on it for the thousands of jobs that can last for generations, such as commercial fishing, and for the subsistence uses many Alaskans treasure.

In November, the Corps of Engineers pulled the permit for the Kensington Mine that approved the dumping of 210,000 gallons a day of toxic mine tailings into Lower Slate Lake. These tailings would have a pH level approximately equal to that of ammonia and would contain solids eventually accumulating to 4.5 million tons, killing all the fish and other aquatic life in the lake. In the letter to Coeur Alaska notifying the company of the permit suspension, the corps directed the company to stop all work previously authorized under the permit.

This review could end the litigation - if the Corps of Engineers lives up to its responsibility to protect clean water and prohibits the use of Lower Slate Lake as a dump for industrial mine waste. Remember that this mine is not "business as usual." If the corps decides not to revoke this mine permit, it would be the first time since 1972 - when Congress passed the Clean Water Act to stop industry's use of our nation's waters for waste disposal - that a mine is allowed to dump its tailings into a lake.

There is more at stake here than a single lake or a single mine: our ability to keep all of Alaska's waters clean. Coeur's plan attacks thirty years of increasingly responsible management of our nation's waterways. What Coeur is trying to get away with - dumping its waste into a lake - opens the gates for other mines to do the same. This is not an abstract fear. Communities and individuals throughout western Alaska, for example, are watching the Kensington mine with tremendous apprehension. These Alaskans fear the ruin of their livelihoods, their Alaska, if the massive Pebble mine - sitting in the richest salmon watershed in the world north of Lake Iliamna - is allowed to dump its estimated one to two billion tons of mine waste into the region's lakes and streams. Recently the Juneau Empire reported that the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association, the largest commercial fishermen's association in Bristol Bay, wrote Gov. Frank Murkowski and urged him to oppose the Pebble mine. We hope the Corps of Engineers takes the far-reaching results of its action regarding the Kensington mine into account as it re-examines the mine's permits.

Coeur's interest in maximizing its profits comes at our expense - the residents of Juneau, of Alaska and the nation. While Coeur puts our clean water at risk to get the gold, Alaskans won't get a dime in state revenue from the Kensington mine. Gold mines sited on federal lands pay no state royalties.

As we look ahead to the new year, we at SEACC encourage the Corps of Engineers to take this opportunity to support the progress that, as a nation, we've made to protect clean water. Let's not go backwards to the days when industries typically dumped their wastes into the nearest lake or river. Let's respect the invaluable clean water we enjoy as Alaskans. Let's do it right.

• Buck Lindekugel is the Conservation Director for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

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