Mining waste dumped in streams — and now lakes

by Tony Barboza

The Bush administration tweaked Clean Water Act regulations to reclassify mining waste as "fill." Now, that revised definition has been applied to metals mining for the first time — allowing a gold mine to put its tailings directly into an Alaskan lake.

The 1972 Clean Water Act prohibited dumping waste into streams and lakes. But in 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency reworded the regulations to classify chemically processed mine waste as "fill," which can be legally discharged into bodies of water if a permit is obtained. Since then, the new definition has been applied widely in Appalachia, making it easier for companies to blast away mountaintops, mine coal seams underneath, and push the waste material into neighboring valleys, often obliterating streams in the process.

Now, freshwater lakes may meet the same fate. In June, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued waste discharge permits for Coeur Alaska, a subsidiary of Idaho-based Coeur d’Alene Mines Corp., to dump the tailings from its proposed Kensington Mine into Lower Slate Lake near Juneau.

The 23-acre lake would swell to 62 acres after the company dams a creek below and discharges 3.4 million cubic yards of tailings into the water. The Juneau Empire reports that the company says this method will be cheaper than storing the tailings on dry land.

Coeur Alaska reportedly hopes to begin operations in 2006, but environmentalists may appeal the permit.

Conservation groups fear that other metals mines will seek similar approvals to dispose of their waste in Western streams and lakes. "This sets a dangerous precedent," says Kat Hall, mining coordinator with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. "It’s a big step backwards."

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