Berners Bay - Alaska

  • February 01, 2011

Ode to Orwell

mr-slatelakevisitnowAlaska's Berners Bay is a prime recreation, hunting and fishing area, home to salmon, stellar sea lions and the central north Pacific humpback whale. The National Marine Fisheries Service calls the bay "an aquatic resource of national importance." But just above the Bay is the new Kensington mine that illustrates how dramatically mining has changed and how fiercely the mining industry has fought to be excluded from modern environmental rules.

The Kensington mine plans to produce as much or more mine waste in a six-week period than was generated over a 40-year period of historic operations in the area. In 1998, the mine was granted a permit with a plan that drew praise from regulators, local environmentalists and fishermen. But Coeur Alaska abandoned that plan and proposed to put mill waste into Lower Slate Lake. After federal rules were changed to redefine mining waste as "fill," a new permit was granted.

mr-bernersbayLocal conservation groups challenged the decision and the circuit court ruled that the permit violated the Clean Water Act. The company took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that even though disposal would kill all aquatic life in the lake, "mitigation" could take place after mining was completed: the lake bed would be sealed and Lower Slate Lake restocked. Justice David Souter called the reasoning "Orwellian." But in June, a majority of the court disagreed. It is now up to Congress or the Obama administration to determine whether Kensington mine will be the nation's first to get the legal green light to destroy a lake and a healthy ecosystem.

Side Trips:

Next, visit Lake Roosevelt.