Earthjustice – a legal environmental advocacy group – will be at the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, arguing against an attempt by the mining industry – supported by President George “what environment” Bush and Alaska Governor Sarah “you betcha” Palin – to turn our nation’s waterways into industrial waste dumps.
The case originated when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – that agency known for mismanaging any number of projects – granted a permit to Coeur Alaska and its Kensington gold mine. One provision of the permit allowed Coeur to deposit its mine tailings into Lower Slate Lake.
Lower Slate Lake, Alaska, prior to preparation for the dumping of mine tailings (2005)
Photo Credit: Earthjustice
Lower Slate Lake, Alaska, after stripping and cutting trees, denuding surrounding banks, and building access roads (2006)
Photo Credit: Earthjustice
To get around a 1982 Environmental Protection Agency rule forbidding the dumping of mine wastes into waterways, the Bush administration thumbed its nose once more at environmental concerns and simply redefined the mine’s leftovers as “fill.” However, the previous definition of fill was usually benign rubble used for such things as jetties not toxic waste in the form of mine tailings.
Mine tailings – also known as slimes, tailings pile, tails, leach residue, or slickens – are the materials left over after the process of separating the valuable fraction from the worthless fraction of an ore. The mineral separation process, especially in older mining operations, is only partially efficient. As a result, after the crushing and grinding (milling) processes, some of the metal-containing minerals are left behind as small tailings particles.
Common minerals and elements found in tailings include
- Arsenic – Found in association with gold ores
- Radioactive materials – Naturally present in many ores
- Sulfur – Forms many sulfide compounds / pyrites
- Hydrocarbons – Introduced by mining and processing equipment (oils & greases)
Common additives found in tailings
- Cyanide – as both Sodium Cyanide (NaCN) and Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN). Leaching agent in extremely dilute quantities which readily volatize upon exposure to sunlight.
- Sodium Ethyl Xanthate. Flotation agent.
- PAX – Potassium Amyl Xanthate. Flotation agent.
- MIBC – Methyl Isobutyl Carbinol. Frothing agent.
- Sulfamic acid – Cleaning / descaling agent.
- Sulfuric acid – Used in large quantities in the PAL process (Pressure Acid Leaching).
- Activated Carbon – Used in CIP (Carbon In Pulp) and CIL (Carbon In Leach) processes.
- Calcium – Different compounds, introduced as lime to aid in pH control.
Federal and state regulators’ environmental-impact report on the mining project anticipates a loss of the lake’s entire aquatic habitat during the operation period, along with a total loss of major fish and invertebrate species. The report also predicts that the project would lead to an irrevocable loss of cultural resources, including relics of old mining areas at over a dozen designated historic sites.
Coeur and the Corps insist that once the ore has been exhausted they’ll restore the lake to its former glory. But destroying the lake and its environment may only be a matter of years – restoring it may take decades.
The case is being closely followed in Alaska by the Governor and the mining industry because of its immediate implications for Pebble Mine, a massive gold mine proposed for development above the headwaters of Bristol Bay, the world’s richest sockeye salmon fishery. Palin, who has the ability to speak out of both sides of her mouth, supports the Kensington Mine and the Pebble Mine project while spouting drivel about the stringency of Alaska’s environmental regulations.
But the broader implications of a decision favorable to the mining interests will make waterways throughout the nation vulnerable to the kind of mine destruction threatening Slate. Allowing such dumpings by the mining industry would undermine the federal Clean Water Act and could open yet another channel for big business to legally destroy water bodies and habitats using them as nothing more than toxic waste pits.