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.
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."