Federal agency questions Kensington Mine plans

Posted: Tuesday, November 05, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- The latest proposal to operate the Kensington Mine calls for using an alpine Southeast lake to hold the thickened mixture of water and crushed rock that results from extracting gold.

But that key element of the proposal may not meet environmental laws, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA submitted its concerns in written comments to the U.S. Forest Service, which is preparing an environmental impact statement.

But the developer, Coeur Alaska Inc., says the proposal is better for the environment than a previously permitted operating plan for the gold mine 45 miles north of downtown Juneau.

''We feel very confident we can make that demonstration,'' said Coeur Alaska Vice President Rick Richins.

Under the proposal, Lower Slate Lake would be dammed at one end to hold lake waters that would rise as the rock mixture -- called tailings -- was piped into it. Some of the lake water would be allowed to flow downstream into Slate Creek, which enters Berners Bay.

In comments submitted last month, the EPA said some aspects of the plan don't appear to comply with the agency's rules and policy. The EPA is one of several federal and state agencies that would issue or deny permits for the mine.

The EPA said its standards require ore mines to recycle back into the mine all of the tailings, unless the developer can show recycling would unduly interfere with mining.

''That recycling thing -- it's a nonstarter,'' Bill Riley, mining coordinator the EPA's Seattle office, told the Juneau Empire. ''I don't see any way around that.''

Richins said the concern about a recycling loop is ''probably semantics.''

''There is a certain amount of recycle in our process,'' he said. ''I think the EPA is looking for us to maximize the recycle and still maintain the ability to remove the gold from the process.''

Coeur didn't develop the mine after getting permits in 1998 because it wasn't profitable to do so at then-current gold prices, company officials have said. The new operating plan would cost about $55 million less for construction, Richins said.

Besides the change in tailings disposal, the new plan would eliminate onsite mining camps. Instead workers and supplies would be ferried across Berners Bay to Echo Cove near the north end of Glacier Highway.

Coeur has said the mine would create 300 to 400 jobs during its 22 months of construction and 225 year-round jobs with an annual payroll of $16 million during operation. The mine would last at least 15 years, supporting an additional 180 jobs indirectly, the company has said.

The new proposal received many letters of support from Native corporations, business groups and citizens, who cited its economic benefits.

But environmentalists say it's against federal and state laws to use the lake to hold tailings.

''We've believed for several years that the Slate Lake option was illegal under both state and federal laws,'' said Gershon Cohen of Haines. He is national project director of the Campaign to Safeguard America's Waters of the Earth Island Institute.

''The precedent they would be setting for dumping mine tailings in a lake would be tremendous,'' Cohen said. ''We would challenge that.''

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