Mixed message to mining: Clean up, says Obama Cabinet. Mess up, says Bush-era Supreme Court

Posted on | June 23, 2009 | 1 Comment

IT’S AS SCREWY as it sounds.

On Monday, in a 6-3 vote, the US Supreme Court upheld the legality of dumping gold mine waste into Lower Slate Lake in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest instead of disposing of it in a special tailings pond. The next day, the Agriculture Secretary announced nearly $20m dollars of federal stimulus funds to be spent on mine waste clean-ups, including $2.8m to Alaska. Meanwhile, the Clean Water Act in any of its various guises does not apply to the Alaskan lake about to receive 4.5 million tons of highly contaminated mine tailings.

First to the Supreme Court decision:

 “The ruling clears the way for as much as 4.5 million tons of mine tailings — waste left after metals are extracted from the ore — to be dumped into the lake,” reported the  Associated Press.

Not all of the justices were behind it. AP reported further:

“In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it is “neither necessary nor proper” to interpret the waterway protection law “as allowing mines to bypass EPA’s zero-discharge standard by classifying slurry as fill material.” She argued the lower court had been correct in concluding that the use of waters as “settling ponds for harmful mining waste” was contrary to the federal Clean Water Act. 

From the Sierra Club, which helped bring the suit, director Carl Pope today explained the history of the case and the difference between “fill material” and toxic waste this way:

“The Court ruled yesterday that as long as a pollutant contains enough solid material to reduce the size of a lake or river, it is not a pollutant, is outside the jurisdiction of the EPA, and can be reviewed only by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The case in point was the Kensington Gold Mine in Alaska, whose operators, Coeur Alaska Inc., want to dump all of its mine tailings into pristine Lower Slate Lake. This was not the original plan filed by the mine owners — their original tailing disposal plan kept the waste on land. But when the Bush administration changed the definition of “fill” under the Clean Water Act to make life easier for mining companies, Coeur Alaska decided it would be cheaper and more expedient to dump all4.5 million tons of its waste in Lower Slate Lake in the heart of the Tongass National Forest. The 9th Circuit Court had said “not so fast” and voided the permit. Pollution, the judges said, does not stop polluting just because it also fills up the lake.

Now comes the Supreme Court to rule, 6-3, that the Bush administration was within its rights to redefine pollution so that nothing solid can, by definition, be a pollutant. The mischief this opens up is almost incomprehensible — the first step in most pollution-control technologies is to separate out the solid stuff, so you can clean up the liquids before releasing them. Now polluters can merely skip that first, cheapest step and, voila, they’re no longer required to get a water-pollution permit!”

Meanwhile, in what seem like strongly related stories, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted 12-7 late last week to advance the Clean Water Restoration Act, which now faces consideration by the full Senate, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced today $19.88 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding to address safety hazards and environmental damage caused by abandoned mines, including watershed clean-ups. Alaska will receive $2.8m of the funds set aside.

See: New York Times and Santa Fe New Mexican editorials on the Clean Water Act and Aquafornia and YubaNet for the mine clean up announcement.

Comments

One Response to “Mixed message to mining: Clean up, says Obama Cabinet. Mess up, says Bush-era Supreme Court”

  1. Giant blob floating along Alaska coast « Stocks Go Up. Stocks Go Down.
    July 18th, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    […] Maybe its from Coeur Alaska? On Monday, in a 6-3 vote, the US Supreme Court upheld the legality of dumping gold mine waste into Lower Slate Lake in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest instead of disposing of it in a special tailings pond. […]

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