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High Court rules in favor of gold mining project


June 22, 2009

(SitNews) - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has authority to permit Kensington mine, a gold mining project near Juneau, to deposit rock waste into Lower Slate Lake in the Tongass National Forest.

Conservation groups had sued Coeur Alaska, claiming the mine's owners should have applied for a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency. The court found that the law places the proper responsibility for the permits under the Corps, not the EPA.

Today's ruling reversed a decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and confirmed the validity of a previously issued permit from the Corps of Engineers for disposal of tailings. The project is being developed by Coeur d'Alene Mines Corporation.

The state supported Coeur's legal efforts to move the project ahead at every level of court review, including intervening in the lawsuit at the outset, litigating the case in the Ninth Circuit, filing a petition asking for review by the Supreme Court, and briefing the case in the Supreme Court on the merits.

Even securing Supreme Court review was an uphill battle, because the federal government itself, whose permit the Ninth Circuit had invalidated, did not seek review. Only the State of Alaska and Coeur filed petitions.

In addition, the case involved complex issues of how to interpret and apply the federal Clean Water Act, issues which led the Supreme Court to take the unusual step of ordering the parties to file supplemental briefs a few weeks ago.

Voting in favor of Coeur Alaska in the 6-3 decision were Justices Kennedy, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer and Antonin Scalia. Dissenting were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and John Stevens.

The high court's decision will allow work to resume at Kensington. The state will continue to provide support through the Department of Labor's workforce training and apprenticeship programs.

The Kensington mine is located 45 miles northwest of Juneau. Couer estimates the mine will be brought into production by the second half of 2010. The mine is expected to produce as many as 150,000 ounces of gold per year during its early stages of operation. Over the life of the mine, Kensington is expected to yield more than 1 million ounces of gold.

Governor Sarah Palin today welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Kensington mine. "This is great news for Alaska," Governor Palin said. "Today's ruling is a green light for responsible resource development. Kensington will produce as many as 370 well-paying jobs. We truly appreciate Coeur's tenacity in pursuing the project and its dedication to hiring Alaskans to work at the mine."

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court's decision reaffirming the validity of Coeur Alaska's permit to dispose of mine tailings at the Kensington gold mine near Juneau.

"I've long agreed with all of the federal agencies that had reviewed the Kensington plan, that it was environmentally, the best option," Murkowski said. "Now the Supreme Court has found that it's 100 percent compliant with the law."

U. S. Senator Mark Begich said in a prepared statement, "Today's decision is good for Southeast Alaska jobs and brings clarity to a 20-year-old dispute. It's time for the federal agencies to work with the Kensington team to move the project forward."

"This is particularly important given the current economic downturn in Southeast Alaska. I expect Coeur will honor their commitments to train and employ Alaskans while developing this resource in a responsible manner. The hundreds of jobs this project is likely to create will be welcome at just the right time," said Begich.

Rep. Don Young (R-AK) said in a prepared statement,"Today's decision by the Supreme Court is a decision that favors people over unfounded causes and it is 100% correct. Coeur followed all of the appropriate procedures put into place to ensure that the Kensington Mine project was done properly; that this was ever even brought to court is a testament to the lengths extremists will go to stop sound development. Their case was built on misinformed, baseless grounds which the Supreme Court recognized."

"The jobs the mining industry creates are among the highest-paying in the private sector." said Young. "The groups that sought to stop this project were sadly willing to kill an entire industry, taking with it countless jobs. I respectfully suggest that these career protesters turn in their picket signs and find themselves some honest work just like the people they are trying to hurt have done."

"This is a great victory for the people of Alaska and for the mining industry that employs so many Americans," said Young.

Not all were pleased with today's decision. Concerned citizens across the nation fear this ruling will open the door for the nation's lakes and streams to be used as mine tailings dumps, and the decision allows Coeur to walk away from the less controversial, more environmentally sound paste tailings disposal option for the Kensington.

"Mining companies have operated for years without having to dump toxic tailings into lakes," stated Rob Cadmus, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council's sustainability and clean water director. "It's a shame for Juneau and Americans across the country that the Court allowed Coeur to put extra profits over the health of our public waters. America deserves better from those who want to profit at the expense of our clean water.

Quoting a news release from Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and Earthjustice, "The rruling allows the Coeur d'Alene Mines Corporation's Kensington gold mine near Juneau to pump over 200,000 gallons per day of toxic wastewater slurry directly into Lower Slate Lake above Berners Bay, a wildlife wonderland, productive fishery, and popular local recreation area. The dumping, which will take place over ten years, will eventually deposit 4.5 million tons of solids in the lake, killing nearly all its aquatic life."

"The purpose of the Clean Water Act is to keep America's waters safe for drinking, fishing, and swimming," added Tom Waldo of Earthjustice, who argued the case on behalf of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC), Lynn Canal Conservation, and the Sierra Club. "The Act was intended to halt the practice of using lakes, rivers, and streams as waste dumps. Today's decision does not achieve these purposes."

According to Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) and Earthjustic, Coeur d'Alene Mines and local conservation groups jointly developed plans for a less environmentally damaging paste tailings alternative. Coeur nearly completed the permitting process for the paste plan, but, just months before final permits were set to be issued, Coeur abandoned that plan to push its controversial lake dumping plan in the Supreme Court.

"SEACC's goals have always been to protect the world-class biological and recreational wonders of Berners Bay and to prevent the Kensington from setting a dangerous precedent of using America's clean water as a waste dump." stated Cadmus, "We're still committed to these goals, and there is a practical, non-controversial alternative that doesn't put our clean water or Berners Bay at risk."

Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and Earthjustice noted that for 30 years after the Clean Water Act was passed, "fill" was defined as material placed in waters for construction purposes, such as building a bridge or breakwater. The Bush Administration changed this; they changed the definition of fill to allow for the disposal of wastes, such as mining wastes. This rule change is what has allowed for practices such as mountaintop removal coal mining and the Kensington Mine's plan to dump mining waste into Lower Slate Lake. At the Kensington, this rule change allowed the skirting of EPA pollution standards that had prohibited direct discharges of tailings from mines like the Kensington since 1975.

"Congress and the Obama administration should undo Bush's rule change and put pollution standards back to what they were for over 30 years." stated Waldo. This rule change can be reversed either with a new rule issued by the Corps and EPA, or by legislation. A bill already introduced in this Congress by Representatives Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Dave Reichert (R-WA) would, if passed, accomplish this task. The Clean Water Protection Act, H.R. 1310, has 151 cosponsors.



Sources of News:

Office of Gov. Sarah Palin

Office of US Senator Lisa Murkowski

Office of US Senator Mark Begich

Office of Rep. Don Young

Southeast Alaska Conservation Council



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