July 17, 2009 in Region

EPA wants another look at gold mine waste plan

Associated Press

JUNEAU, Alaska — The Environmental Protection Agency wants the Army Corps of Engineers to take another look at how to dispose of tailings at Coeur Alaska Inc.’s Kensington Gold mine north of Juneau.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court gave the Coeur d’Alene-based company the go-ahead to dump waste from the mine into nearby Slate Lake. But regional EPA official Michael Gearheard sent a letter to the corps this week asking it to look at an alternative method to handle the tailings. The EPA estimates the re-evaluation will take eight months.

Construction at the mine has been on hold since 2006 because of the tailings issue. Coeur spokesman Tony Ebersole tells the Juneau Empire that the EPA letter is “really unbelievable.” He says it has taken nine years to get the permit to dispose of tailings in the lake, and that federal and state agencies all supported it.

Tailings are the ground-up waste rock left after metals are removed from ore. Coeur wants to put the tailings in Lower Slate Lake, which feeds Berners Bay, and treat the water coming out.

The U.S. Supreme Court sided with that plan and said the Corps had been right to issue a permit for the Lower Slate Lake tailings plan. In a 6-3 majority, the court called the disposal plan the environmentally preferred option for the mine, citing the Corps of Engineers’ analysis.

Federal environmental law requires the Corps to choose the least damaging alternative that’s practical when issuing construction permits.

But the EPA says “new information” has come to light since the last time the Corps looked at the mine’s tailings disposal options. It says the Corps is legally obligated to analyze it.

Gearheard’s letter said EPA believes an upland option, the paste tailings facility, may be the least damaging alternative considering that new information.

That’s the plan preferred by environmentalists who sued over the issue. The plan would require Coeur to squeeze water out of the tailings and store the resulting paste in the wetlands above Comet Beach, which lines Lynn Canal.

After the Lower Slate Lake plan was halted, Coeur applied for a permit to build the paste tailings facility. But the company canceled its application in fall 2008, shortly before agencies expected to issue it, and instead focused on its Supreme Court bid to reinstate the Slate Lake plan.

The company has said a paste tailings option would be more expensive than the Slate Lake plan.

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