SEATTLE — The controversial Kensington gold mine in southeast Alaska has won an important go-ahead from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which approved an amended permit that will allow the mine to dump millions of tons of waste into a nearby lake.
The project has been the subject of a national environmental fight over whether navigable lakes and rivers can be used as repositories for toxic mine tailings. The corps last week announced it was extending Coeur Alaska's permit until 2014 and reiterated that the company could construct a tailings storage facility in Lower Slate Lake, below the mine.
The U.S. Supreme Court this year upheld the project, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency in July urged the Corps of Engineers to take a second look at the lake disposal plan. The EPA and several conservation organizations have advocated that mine operators think about turning the waste material into a paste and depositing it on land on the other side of the mine.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), one of several lawmakers who urged that the project be allowed to go forward as planned, applauded the corps' decision.
"The amended permit confirms my belief that the disposal of tailings in Slate Lake is the environmentally preferable option, and when the project is complete will actually leave the lake with improved fish habitat," Begich said in a statement.
"This is good news for an ailing southeast Alaska economy, and after 20 years of study and debate, Alaskans can finally go to work. The mine will create hundreds of good-paying jobs for Alaskans and help expand the mining industry in a responsible way," the senator said.
Opponents of the lake disposal option at the mine about 45 miles north of Juneau said they had not seen the corps' full decision, and it was not clear whether the agency had ruled out alternative disposal options. And, they said, the EPA still could step in and veto the permit -- although that would be a rare exercise of its authority.
"The EPA and the conservation groups strongly preferred a paste-tailings option, which would have put the tailings upland, instead of in a lake. We believe that was the environmentally preferred option, but the corps . . . apparently decided otherwise," said Tom Waldo, an attorney for Earthjustice who argued the court case.
"We hope that the Obama administration will act promptly to reverse the Bush administration policies that allowed lakes and rivers and streams to be used to dump toxic wastes," he said.
Most conservation groups don't oppose the mine itself, which would be an important new economic engine for southeast Alaska.