Alaskan lake’s fate could echo across continent
US Supreme Court will decide if Lower Slate should be disposal site for mine wastes.
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“I don’t want to get into the elements of the Supreme Court case except to say we were fully permitted and ready to go ahead,” Coeur spokesman Tony Embersole says. “The only thing that hadn’t been completed was the tailings facility at the lake, then environmentalists tied it up in litigation.”Skip to next paragraph
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Native Alaskans support mine jobs
Among the mine’s strongest supporters, he says, are native Alaskans, including the Tlingit and Haida tribes, which have struggled with high unemployment.
“This is ... a huge economic opportunity for southeast Alaska,” Embersole says, mentioning 225 direct mining jobs, nearly as many jobs created as a byproduct of the mine, and millions of dollars in annual economic activity over the estimated 15-year life of the project.
With $220 million already invested in preparing Kensington for operation, Embersole would not say how a negative ruling from Washington, D.C., might affect the project.
A compromise brokered by the mayor of Juneau among environmentalists, the company, and federal regulators – and which would have allowed the mine to stack tailings in a wetland instead of in the lake – broke down last fall when Coeur pulled out of negotiations.
“We are not blanketly opposed to mining or to creating good jobs,” says Rob Cadmus with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. “There was a win-win option on the table that would have ensured the opening of the mine and the protection of the lake. Instead, Coeur decided to stick with their plan to dump wastes into Slate Lake and gamble the Supreme Court will decide in their favor.”
Coeur case may set precedent
It is this element that makes Kensington a high-stakes test case being closely watched across the continent.
Where William and Mr. Bristol are concerned, they say the Supreme Court ruling, expected later this spring, will set a precedent rippling all the way to Appalachian coal country and into the Canadian Maritimes.
For William, a parallel clash is playing out over a proposed mine in his own backyard in northern British Columbia. In his native tongue, the tarn he is trying to protect is Teztan Biny. The English translation is “Fish Lake."
Vancouver-based Taseko Mines Limited wants to use Fish Lake as a dumping ground for toxic wastes from its Prosperity Mine, a proposed multibillion-dollar open-pit gold and copper operation that would create 500 full-time jobs, 1,280 indirect jobs, and generate $200 million annually over two decades.
Mr. William recently was lead plaintiff in a case brought before the British Columbia Supreme Court that reaffirmed hunting and fishing rights for native tribes in the area where the mine is proposed.
“My people find it kind of ironic that the British Columbian government has been forced to recognize our historic claim and right to harvest fish, while at the same time it is considering granting permission to a mining company to destroy the lake where the fish live,” William says.
Taseko acknowledges that its activities will exact an ecological toll on Fish Lake. In exchange, the company says it will build an artificial body of water nearby and stock it with fish.
“The logic of it is insulting,” William responds. “Who is opposed to jobs? Not me. But as archaeologists have confirmed, our people have lived off the fish in Teztan Biny for thousands of years. The mining company wants us to sacrifice our heritage for an economic opportunity that will last 25 years and then leave us to deal with a ruined lake and worries about pollution for generations.”
Geographically speaking, mining companies aspiring to use lakes and rivers as dumping zones is a phenomenon happening coast to coast, says
Ramsey Hart with MiningWatch Canada. He ticks off the names of projects already in operation and others proposed in Labrador, Newfoundland, the Arctic north, and British Columbia. Many of them, he says, pit powerful mining companies against native tribes that allegedly were not consulted by provincial governments granting ore-diggers access to their aboriginal land, another fulcrum for growing conflict.