Mine Gets OK to Turn Alaska Lake into Waste Dump

by Lori Pottinger
Friday, September 18, 2009

Recent federal rulings permitting a gold mining company to dump toxic waste into a pristine mountain lake in Alaska could have widespread ramifications for rivers, streams and lakes in the US.

In June, the US Supreme Court ruled that the proposed permit for the mine did not entail a violation of the nation's preeminent water pollution law, the Clean Water Act. Then in August, the US Army Corps of Engineers (which oversees much of the nation's dam- and canal-building) gave the mine's owners the needed permit to begin.

The permit authorizes the Idaho-based Coeur D'Alene Mines Corporation to discharge 200,000 gallons per day of toxic wastewater from its gold-ore processing mill into Lower Slate Lake, in the Tongass National Forest north of Juneau. The company will triple the lake size by damming it, to accommodate the huge amount of discharge (expected to be about 4.5 million tons of solids over the ten-year life of the mine).

The result is expected to devastate the lake's aquatic life. Should the dam fail (and tailings dams such as this one are more apt to fail than other kind of dams), its toxic waters would flow down to the pristine waters of Berners Bay, a wildlife-rich inlet with very productive fisheries.

"If the Clean Water Act allows significant pollution of Lower Slate Lake, it can allow the same thing for water bodies elsewhere in the United States too," says Tom Waldo, a lawyer with EarthJustice. Waldo argued the case for environmental groups before the Supreme Court.

Slate Lake, Alaska, after the US government gave a mining company permission to fill it with chemically processed tailings.
Slate Lake, Alaska, after the US government gave a mining company permission to fill it with chemically processed tailings.
Photo: Pat Costello, courtesy of Lighthawk
The precedent-setting case began with changes to environmental protection laws set in place by George W. Bush's administration. In 2002, the administration expanded the definition of "fill material," which is regulated by a less strict provision in the Clean Water Act, to include toxic, industrial wastewater slurries. Previously, fill material was understood to be sand or gravel that might be deposited in water to build levees, bridges and the like. This is the first test case of the looser definition.

There are alternatives to dumping waste into the lake. According to the website nodirtygold.org, "In 1997 [the company] received permits for a proposed mine design that used a landbased waste disposal facility. That plan relied on the established and legal dry stack method of tailings disposal. Coeur's critics say that rather than risking clean water - the most precious of all resources - Coeur should act responsibly and use an alternative method to store its waste."

The Seattle office of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also raised questions about the project, and has legal authority to revoke the mine's permit. Issues raised by the EPA include questions about the mine's potential for "acid rock drainage" (already happening at the site, according to news reports), and the fact that the project's environmental studies were based on a smaller mine with less waste.

The company says the land-based tailings option would be more expensive than dumping the waste in the lake. The Kensington mine holds an estimated 1.5 million ounces of gold. Couer has reportedly invested more than $300 million to develop the mine, now expected to begin production in 2010. The price of gold has been climbing, and could top $1,000 an ounce in the next five years, according to Credit Suisse.

This is Coeur's third new mine in as many years. It also owns the San Bartolome silver mine in Bolivia, and the Palmarejo silver and gold operation in Mexico.

There is still a chance the decision will be overruled. "We hope that the Obama administration will act promptly to reverse the Bush administration policies that allowed lakes and rivers and streams to be used to dump toxic wastes," said Waldo.