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Alaskan lake’s fate could echo across continent

US Supreme Court will decide if Lower Slate should be disposal site for mine wastes.

(Page 2 of 4)

He points to a benchmark ruling during the 1970s against the Reserve Mining Co. in Minnesota, which disposed of taconite tailings, laden with asbestos, into Lake Superior from its processing facility, contaminating drinking water. In the US West, water quality in an estimated 40 percent of rivers has been impaired by historic mining sites long abandoned.

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“The lesson is that it’s not a good idea to discharge mining wastes, especially those that are hardly benign, directly into water bodies,” Mr. Waldo explains, echoing what he said before the Supreme Court justices in January (Coeur Alaska, Inc. v. Southeast Alaska Conservation Council). Coeur, meanwhile, argued that entombing tailings in Lower Slate would actually result in a smaller development footprint over the alternative of stacking crushed earth in a remote wetland. A decision is expected before June.

“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.”

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.