Coeur’s blueprint for the underground Kensington gold mine located in the Tongass National Forest 45 miles north of Alaska’s capital, Juneau, was made possible by regulatory changes implemented during the Bush administration in 2002, enabling companies to use lakes as lower-cost tailings impoundments.
The action deepened a fracture line between environmentalists and industry. Moreover, it casts a spotlight on two federal regulators: the US Army Corps of Engineers, which gave Coeur the green light, and the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is accused of violating its own standards.
Environmental attorney Tom Waldo with the firm Earthjustice says that the impetus for the Clean Water Act was a legacy of contamination and public health concerns caused by industrial companies, municipalities, and agriculture historically treating waterways as convenient, expendable repositories for waste.
He points to a benchmark ruling during the 1970s against the Reserve Mining Co. in Minnesota, which disposed of taconite tailings, laden with asbestos, into Lake Superior from its processing facility, contaminating drinking water. In the US West, water quality in an estimated 40 percent of rivers has been impaired by historic mining sites long abandoned.