August 18, 2009

Alaska mine gets a boost, Washington mine gets the boot

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In what may be the final go-ahead for Alaska’s Kensington gold mine, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has given its blessing to the dumping of 4.5 million tons of mining waste into a lake  in the Tongass National Forest, not too far from Juneau, reports Kim Murphy at the L.A. Times.

The project has been under national scrutiny since 2007, when the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals first blocked the Army Corps’ plans to approve waste disposal in the lake. In June 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the mining company’s decision to declare the waste “fill material” under a Bush-era policy that allows Coeur Alaska to dump the waste without meeting an earlier, more-stringent interpretation of the Clean Water Act. For more history on the legalities, check out our DatelineEarth post from July.

The decision to allow Lower Slate Lake to serve as a repository for toxic mine tailings was made despite the fact that the process will kill much of the current aquatic life. The verdict has troubled environmentalists, who fear that reinterpretations of environmental protection laws, such as the Clean Water Act, mean trouble for waterways elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Post Globe reported on Friday that Washington State’s Maury Island sand and gravel mine expansion would be put on hold. A federal judge ruled that the Army Corps had not thoroughly assessed how  construction of a dock to serve the mine would affect Puget Sound aquatic life, including one of the state’s four aquatic reserves. Going to show how powerful the Endangered Species Act can be, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez tossed out the Army Corps’s approval of the dock, ruling that government assertions that the mine wouldn’t hurt threatened orcas and Chinook salmon were “speculative,” at best.

Boasting a list of federally protected species may help protect the Sound, but water bodies without such endangered animals may be more vulnerable — as with the case of Lower Slate Lake in Alaska.

Word choice is a big issue in these two cases. Reclassification of “waste” into “fill” allowed the Kensington gold mine to sidestep a longstanding interpretation of the Clean Water Act. At Maury Island, it was the mining company’s inability to prove that its expansion would result in zero impact  — low’s not good enough the judge said — that made these two mining tales pan out so differently.

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