20 years of Pacific Northwest victories: supporting mining in Alaska

March 07, 2012 | By BRIAN HODGES

Over the past 20 years, attorneys at PLF’s Pacific Northwest Center have written hundreds of amicus briefs in important, precedent-setting cases.  One of those cases was Coeur Alaska, Inc. v. Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009.

After almost 70 years of dormancy, the Kensington Gold Mine near Juneau was on schedule to be reopened.  The mine’s owner—Coeur Alaska—sought the appropriate permits to convert the facility for froth flotation gold mining, including a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers authorizing discharge of mine tailings into a nearby lake.  The Corps approved the permit after intensive environmental study.

But a group called Southeast Alaska Conservation Council alleged that Coeur Alaska’s permit was illegally granted because the mine should have been required to follow stringent EPA pollution control standards disallowing any wastewater discharge.  The discharge standard the environmentalists promoted would have made reopening the Kensington mine extremely difficult and expensive, if not impossible.  And forcing Coeur Alaska to abandon the project would have had enormous costs in both jobs and investment.

PLF filed a brief arguing that the environmentalists’ interpretation of the permitting standards was wrong.  The permit from the Corps was the appropriate permit.  That permit, in combination with other applicable standards, provided for a high level of environmental protection at the site.  In fact, the Supreme Court noted in its decision that Coeur Alaska’s tailings disposal plan would actually improve wildlife habitat at the lake because it included a reclamation phase that would create wetlands.  The Court agreed with PLF’s position, ruling that Coeur Alaska had received the right permit, and that the standards under which it had been granted complied with the Clean Water Act.

Thanks in part to PLF’s efforts, the Kensington Gold Mine today employs hundreds of people as the second-largest employer in the Juneau area, and contributes millions of dollars to the economy.