Alaskan lake’s fate could echo across continent
US Supreme Court will decide if Lower Slate should be disposal site for mine wastes.
Roger William, a soft-spoken former chief of the Tsilhqot’in Nation in Canada, and Tim Bristol, a recreational fishing activist in the United States, have never met. They adhere to divergent cultural customs in different countries on opposite sides of rugged, glacier-sheathed mountains. But they share a common concern about the persistence of clean, untainted water and how it is becoming an ever-rarer commodity in the world.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Uniting their attention is a landmark legal case now before the US Supreme Court. Both men say the fate of faraway Lower Slate Lake, a tiny unremarkable tarn in the coastal Alaskan rainforest above the Pacific Ocean, holds huge implications for lakes across the continent.
The question soon to be answered by America’s highest court is this: Should natural lakes be used as dumping grounds for wastes generated by hardrock mines?
Nearly four decades after Congress passed the federal Clean Water Act to protect waterways from industrial pollution, the proposal by Coeur d’Alene Mines Corp. to dispose of tons of effluent in Lower Slate has sparked an international debate.
Legal scholars say it assumes a bigger profile in these tough economic times and amid soaring gold prices, yet the issue, they say, transcends the localized dichotomy of jobs versus environment.
Coeur’s blueprint for the underground Kensington gold mine located in the Tongass National Forest 45 miles north of Alaska’s capital, Juneau, was made possible by regulatory changes implemented during the Bush administration in 2002, enabling companies to use lakes as lower-cost tailings impoundments.
The action deepened a fracture line between environmentalists and industry. Moreover, it casts a spotlight on two federal regulators: the US Army Corps of Engineers, which gave Coeur the green light, and the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is accused of violating its own standards.
Environmental attorney Tom Waldo with the firm Earthjustice says that the impetus for the Clean Water Act was a legacy of contamination and public health concerns caused by industrial companies, municipalities, and agriculture historically treating waterways as convenient, expendable repositories for waste.