A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today unanimously ruled that a lower court and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers erred in issuing a permit to Coeur Alaska, a mining company, that would have allowed the company to discharge 4.5 million tons of toxic slurry into Lower Slate Lake over a ten to 15-year period. Lower Slate Lake is situated 30 miles north of Juneau in the Berners Bay watershed, a popular area for fishing, hunting, boating, and viewing its spectacular abundance of sea life. The mine tailings would have killed all the fish and most everything else in the lake.
The judges returned the case to the federal district court in Juneau with orders that permits for the mine and a transfer facility at Berners Bay be cancelled.
The Corps had argued that it had authority under the law to allow the slurry discharge despite an Environmental Protection Agency regulation that prohibits the discharge of waste from this kind of mining operation into lakes or streams. The court forcefully rejected that argument.
“This an extremely important decision,” said Tom Waldo of Earthjustice, who represented the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Lynn Canal Conservation, and the Sierra Club in the litigation. “Had the Corps’ willful misinterpretation of the statute and the regulations been upheld, it would have amounted to a loaded gun pointed at lakes, streams, and wetlands anywhere in the country near mining operations.”
Coeur originally proposed to dispose of its tailings on land and obtained permits to that end in 1997. Then the price of gold dropped so the company revised its plan to incorporate the cheaper lake-discharge alternative. The court pointed out that the price of gold has risen substantially in the past few years so the land-disposal method should be feasible.
Read the court’s opinion