Northern Dynasty Mines Inc. is still at least a year away from applying for permits for its Pebble Mine project northwest of Iliamna, but a permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allowing a Southeast Alaska mining operation to dump tailings into a freshwater lake has raised concerns among environmentalists that a similar permit might be granted for Pebble.
The Corps last month issued a permit to Coeur Alaska allowing them to dump as much as 4.5 million tons of chemically-processed mine waste directly into Lower Slate Lake in the Tongass National Forest, clearing the way for approval of its proposed Kensington gold mine, a project much smaller than Pebble is anticipated to be.
In a press release issued June 23, the environmental group Earthworks denounced that decision as blatantly contradicting the Clean Water Act's fundamental purpose keeping the nation's waterways from becoming toxic waste dumps.
It marks "the first time since the Clean Water Act became law in 1972 that the federal government will allow mine waste to be dumped into a freshwater lake," said Bonnie Gestring, a field staff worker for Earthworks.
Rules changes adopted by the Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency in 2002 included redefining "fill" material to include waste rock and chemically-processed mine waste called "tailings." The rule was aimed at coal mining. The Kensington permit will be the first time the new rules have been applied to metals mining.
Kat Hall, a representative of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, accused the Corps of sacrificing Alaska's clean water for mine profits.
"It's like the 1950s," she said. "We're going backwards."
Scott Brennan, director of Alaskans for Responsible Mining, which has been watch-dogging the Pebble project, said he's worried the new definition could be used to skirt environmental protections at Pebble. Brennan said the Alaska Department of Natural Resources likes to dismiss concerns about Pebble-related pollution by saying "pollution is illegal in Alaska."
"One way around this is to redefine mine waste not as a type of pollution but as 'fill,' making what was yesterday's illegal pollution, today perfectly legal," he said.
Northern Dynasty is planning a tailings containment area covering some 14.5 square miles. Bruce Jenkins, NDM's chief operating officer, said Friday the company has and still is reviewing a host of ways to handle its mine tailings, adding that NDM even looked at using a pipeline and disposing of the waste in the eastern end of Lake Iliamna.
"That idea was fatally flawed for two reasons," he said. "The cost of the pipeline and jurisdictional and permitability flaws. We abandoned that alternative."
The current concept does not involve dumping in a lake but building dams and creating an artificial lake, a "completely different scenario," Jenkins said.
Earlier this year, company spokesperson, Environmental Project Manager Ella Ede, said NDM's tailings disposal might involve covering part of Frying Pan Lake and a portion of the Koktuli River's southern tributary.
"Frankly, we had nowhere else to go," she told the Clarion. "We made a commitment to stay out of the Upper Talarik Creek because it is sensitive fish habitat."
Jenkins said Friday that Frying Pan Lake, while it has a name, is just one of many glacier-scoured holes in the tundra. It does not have fish and is far from salmon spawning areas. It and other shallow bodies of water in the wetland area would end up inside the created tailings lake, he said.
Don Kuhle, project manager with the Corps, said that when Northern Dynasty is prepared to apply for the various permits needed to move its project forward, the Corps would review all the alternatives for handling tailings.
"Not only those presented, but the process they went through to arrive at them," Kuhle said. "Their (environmental impact statement) would discuss that, and how they eliminated various alternatives and arrived at those considered to be action alternatives."
Patty McGrath, regional mining coordinator for the EPA in Seattle, said that her agency, too, would look at all tailing containment alternatives.
Northern Dynasty officials have been working closely with the Corps, providing documentation and asking for Corps input regarding issues of interest to the federal agency, according to Kuhle.
As for the rules changes, Kuhle said they effectively brought previously diverse definitions for fill and waste material used by the Corps and EPA into line and helped eliminate a lot of disagreement. He said he wasn't sure of the significance of the Kensington mine permit or whether it was precedent setting in terms of the Pebble project.
Jenkins said work was on pace to complete a feasibility study by the end of the year and that workers, including many hired locally, were in the field this summer collecting data.
"It's pedal to the metal now," he said.
The earliest NDM might be ready to apply for a permit would be June 2006, he said. It would be at least two or three years beyond that before mining operations could actually begin if the company is successful in getting the necessary state and federal permits, he said.
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