The Coeur d’Alene mine north of Juneau, Alaska is once again in the news. Like me you could easily go back through all the news items to get the chronology of the story. As the story is so fascinating, however, I summarize news reports from about 2005 until September 2, 2007. I promise to update this posting as the news develops.

June 2005

Coeur d’Alene received a US Environmental Protection Agency's National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for its Kensington gold project in Alaska, USA. The permit is the final requirement to begin the construction of the mine. The company has also received the Army Corps of Engineers' 404 Wetlands permit, authorizing the construction of a Lower Slate Lake tailings facility, mill site, road improvements and a Slate Creek Cove dock facility. All permits have been reviewed for consistency by both the Alaska Coastal Management and the Department of Governmental Coordination, which issued its final ACMP certification.

17 June 2005

The Corps issued a permit to allow Coeur Alaska to dredge, place structures, and discharge 3.4 million cubic yards of fill and dredged fill materials into 61.7 acres of waters, wetlands and navigable waters to construct new mine facilities and associated infrastructure. It allows for a temporary conversion of 61.7 acres of waters to uplands. At the end of the estimated 12-year project life, all of the affected area except for 7.74 acres must be reclaimed and returned to wetlands and waters.

12 September 2005

The Sierra Club, Lynn Canal Conservation and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council filed suit against the Corps for allegedly violating the Clean Water Act. The litigation challenges the Corps's categorization as benign "fill material" of mine tailings. The environmental groups claim "this is a clear violation of the letter and spirit of the Clean Water Act and is inconsistent with current EPA regulations, which prohibit the discharge of chemically processed mine waste from mines like the Kensington into our lakes and streams." Kensington is located adjacent to Berners Bay, north of Juneau.

1 December 2005

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has suspended the 404 permit which would have allowed Coeur d'Alene Mines to dispose tailings from the Kensington gold mine in Alaska into Slate Lake, an alpine freshwater lake.

The Corps intends to review the Section 404 Permit for further study in the wake of a federal judge's decision to grant a motion filed by the U.S. Department of Justice for a voluntary remand of the Corps's permit decision. In addition to the tailings disposal into the lake, the permit also authorized Coeur to fill wetlands as part of the company's road construction and preparation work for the Kensington mill. In a filing with SEC, Coeur said it intends to submit a work plan which will define the project activities that are not impacted by the 404 permit or are allowed by the Corps during construction.

Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski is urging the Corps to allow construction to continue at Kensington while it reviews its wetlands permit. "This mine project is moving forward and there are more than 190 jobs in Juneau and in the region that will be affected by disruption at this late date," he said in a recent news release. "I think that fundamentally the decision to issue the permit was correct, continuing work should not change that."

8 August 2006

A spokesman for Alaskan environmental NGOs told Mineweb Monday that they will appeal a federal court decision dismissing their suit challenging an Idaho mining company's plan to dispose of mine tailings in a freshwater lake in Alaska.

In a decision filed last Friday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska, federal judge James K. Singleton, Jr., granted a cross-motion for summary judgment dismissing with prejudice a lawsuit filed by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, the Sierra Club and Lynn Canal Conservation against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S Forest Service, the State of Alaska, Coeur Alaska and Goldbelt, Inc. The plaintiffs appealed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' decision to grant a permit to Coeur Alaska and Goldbelt, a shipping company, under section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act for the Kensington Mine to discharge an average of 210,000 gallons per day of tailings into Lower Slate Lake, a freshwater lake.

It is expected that most aquatic life in Lower Slate Lake will be lost during mining operations because they will be covered with mine tailings. Nevertheless, the court found that "tests on the tailings show that they will not generate an acid discharge or metals leachate." Therefore, "it is expected that the lake would recover over time, and would provide at least equivalent aquatic habitat and productivity as it does currently," the judge wrote in his decision.

The NGOs claim that the federal section 404 permit, which is mandated for all U.S. mining companies operating in watersheds or wetlands, is contrary to the federal Clean Water Act. Generally, permitting for the discharge of effluents is vested in the EPA, which requires meeting strict water quality standards.

However, Congress carved out an exception for the disposal of dredged or fill material into navigable waters at specific disposal sites, vesting primary permitting authority in the Corps. The federal court ruled that mine tailings falls within the definition of fill material, which is regulated by the Corps. Judge Singleton found that the EPA Administrator did not object when the Corps assumed regulatory control of mine tailings.

19 March 2007

A three-judge 9th Circuit Appeals court panel announced last week that they intend to rule that Coeur d'Alene's Kensington Alaska gold project tailings plan violates the federal Clean Water Act.

The environmental NGO the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) appealed a lower Alaskan federal court decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the Corps and the U.S. Forest Service to allow the discharge of 210,000 gallons of slurry (including 1,444 tons of mine tailings) per day from the Kensington Gold Mine into Lower Slate Lake, a 23-acre lake in the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska.

In Thursday's appeals court decision, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had sought an emergency injunction to permit construction of the Western Interceptor Ditch at Kensington, which the appeals court denied. In their ruling, the judges, scolded Coeur for building a temporary coffer dam, knowing that a federal appeal was pending against the freshwater lake tailings disposal plan. Coeur now believes that the Alaskan weather may impact the integrity of the coffer dam.

"Now the Corps seeks this court's authorization of a plan involving the construction of a diversion ditch known as the Western Interceptor Ditch (WID)," the judges wrote, adding that "Coeur Alaska's ditch plan violates both the letter and the spirit of the injunction. That injunction prohibits the Corp, the Forest Service, and Coeur Alaska from ‘authorizing, allowing, or conducting any further construction activities relating to the use of Lower Slate Lake as a disposal site for mine tailings."

"In approving Coeur Alaska's ditch plan, the Corps has disregarded the purpose of the original injunction, which was to prevent further environmental degradation of the site pending the outcome of this appeal," according to the ruling. The judges said Coeur's original plan to use a coffer dam to not breach the spring freshet was less environmentally harmful than "the current plan of clearing a swath of trees around the lake, digging a large ditch, installing a liner, constructing a service road, and filling in wetlands."

The judges accused Coeur of fashioning "a remedy that that furthers its intention of disposing of tailings in Lower Slake Lake." The angry panel also announced that it intended to "reverse the district court, vacate the permits and the Record of Decision authorizing the use of Lower Slake Lake as a disposal facility, and remand to the district court with instructions to enter a summary judgment in favor of SEACC.

"Because we intend to reverse and vacate the ROD and permits, all construction-related activities furthering the implementation of Coeur Alaska's plan of disposing tailings into Lower Slate Lake should cease and not be undertaken," the judges ruled. "Coeur Alaska and the Corps have the responsibility to address the integrity and/or removal of the temporary coffer dam itself."

31 August 2007

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and the Juneau Group of the Sierra Club said that Dennis Wheeler, Chairman and CEO of Idaho-based Coeur d'Alene Mines, has accepted their invitation to work together "towards a mutually acceptable dry tailings plan" that will keep tailings away from Lower Slate Lake.

Coeur's original operations plan for Kensington had called for the construction of a "dry tailings facility." However, when the price of gold subsequently dropped to $400/oz in 2004, Coeur proposed a new plan of operations to discharge its tailings directly into nearby Lower Slate Lake. The plan was approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service and the State of Alaska. It was the first time in three decades that metal mining companies had been permitted by regulators to dispose of mine tailings in U.S. freshwaters since the enactment of the Clear Air Act.

SEACC said Wheeler told the Juneau Chamber of Commerce Thursday that Coeur had accepted the NGO's invitation to work together on a dry stack tailings plan for Kensington. Buck Lindekugel, SEACC Conservation Director, said, "We remain hopeful we can reach such an agreement. It is important to remember that the lawsuit is done. The court ruled Coeur's tailing facility at Lower Slate Lake is illegal. It's time to move forward on a dry stack tailings plan."

Mark Rorick of the Alaska Chapter of the Sierra Club told the Juneau City Assembly on August 20 that he believes Kensington will move forward and eventually begin production, but that it must do so in a legal and environmentally sound way. "The Sierra Club will oppose any attempt to use Lower Slate Lake as a tailings disposal site."

During the same meeting, Lindekugel said, "We all have a stake in the mine moving forward." Nevertheless, he called the proposal to dispose of Kensington's tailings in Lower Slate Lake as "a giant step backwards to an earlier time when our waters were treated as cheap waste disposal sites by industry. The precedent of this care therefore has national implications that we can't ignore."

02 September 2007

An August 30 press release issued by the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) and the Juneau Group of the Sierra Club claimed that Wheeler had agreed to discuss a dry tailings disposal option, although Coeur has actually spent six years working on permits for freshwater tailings disposal.

However, Mineweb subsequently viewed Wheeler's speech on You-Tube, and learned that Wheeler told the chamber that dry tailings had specifically been ruled out as an option for Kensington by federal and state regulatory agencies.

In fact, Wheeler said the Environmental Protection Agency specifically encouraged Coeur to consider using a nearby freshwater lake for tailings disposal "because they were uncomfortable" with the idea of ocean disposal of mine tailings. Lower Slate Lake--which has been the battleground pitting Coeur and state and federal regulators against SEACC and the Sierra Club-is actually clearer today than it was before Coeur came, Wheeler asserted.

"The water was unclean before Coeur came," he claimed. "The water did not meet state quality standards in its natural state," a situation which he said had been confirmed by every regulatory agency involved.

Wheeler also accused the NGOs of deliberately misleading the news media and the general public about the use of freshwater disposal for mine tailings in the United States. "SEACC, Sierra Club and Lynn Canal Conservation have told you that no mine has been granted approval to place tailings in the waters of the U.S. since the passage of the Clear Water Act. In fact, Greens Creek, Pogo and Fort Knox, only to mention a few, have been approved by the Corps of Engineers, EPA and the Alaska Department of Conservation to place treated tailings into waters of the U.S. after exhaustive studies and a permitting process unlike Kensington."

"These are state-of-the-art projects, just like Kensington, and include treated tailings placements into waters of the United States, be it wetlands, diverted streams or small non-productive lakes," he declared.

"It is possible to place tailings very inertly, without harm to the environment in the areas surrounding well-placed mining projects," he asserted.

Wheeler also questioned why the environmental opposition would now state that it supports dry tailings disposal for the site when the previously approved dry tailings plan would have resulted in a net loss of more than 160 acres while the Lower Slate Lake option "would eliminate only 3.4 acres of wetlands."

He asserted that the dry tailings facility permitting is no long valid for the Kensington mining operation which is being downsized from its original 4,000tpd to 2,000tpd "with a smaller environmental footprint, dramatically less fuel consumption and storage needs, and overall lower impacts."

"...Any further review of DTF (Dry Tailings Facility) or any other modified tailings proposal would require the complete cooperative of the plaintiffs to expedite any additional permitting needs so that the mine can begin production," according to Wheeler. "It should be remembered that the site is comprised of at least 85% wetlands or waters of the U.S. The same legal principle that currently stalled tailings management at Kensington and the mine going into production would again apply-the same exact contested issue."

Although the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the issue of the freshwater tailings permit back to a lower court, Coeur and state and federal agencies have appealed the decision to a 15-judge panel of the appeals court. An attorney, Wheeler said, the 9th Circuit ruling "isn't the end of the road."

"My clear preference is to work with the plaintiffs," he declared. Wheeler said he hopes to achieve "a world-class, award-winning mine at Kensington-with the cooperation of the environmental community-that can serve as a model for resource development in Alaska and every place else going forward with world class science and programs for environmental stewardship, mine safety, working training-you name it-it can all be there."

Coeur has retained world-class experts to design the scientific and engineering foundation "upon which the Lower Slate Lake environmentally preferred alternative is based," according to Wheeler. The company has also invested $30 million in more than 900 environmental studies for Kensington, he added.

"It is our goal to work with SEACC, Sierra Club and Lynn Canal Conservation in the month of September to be able to present options for Kensington's go forward plan," Wheeler said. "This will, at the very least require an immediate stay and narrowing of the court mandate pending from the 9th Circuit."