The Supreme Court agreed today to step into an environmental dispute over the disposing of mine tailings at the Kensington gold mine near Juneau.
The decision to hear the case was among the last actions by the Supreme Court before its lengthy summer break.
In the Alaska case that the court will hear next winter, the mine operator, Coeur Alaska, and the state are fending off a challenge by environmentalists to the planned disposal of tailings from gold mining into 23-acre Lower Slate Lake in the Tongass National Forest.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit for the dumping after the corps and the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to a regulatory change in 2002. The rule defines "fill" as "tailings or similar mining-related materials."
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco invalidated the permit, saying the dumping is barred by stringent EPA pollution-control requirements under the Clean Water Act of 1972.
Putting the tailings would kill all the fish and nearly all aquatic life and deposit potentially hazardous materials including aluminum, copper, lead and mercury, the appeals court said.
It has been illegal since 1982 for new gold mines using a particular mining process to discharge waste into lakes or rivers. The corps permit would allow the discharge.
The corps has often issued permits in situations that create tailing ponds. Environmentalists say the current permit is the first to authorize the discharge of mining process wastewater into a navigable waterway.
Officials with the mine, which is still under construction, recently negotiated with environmentalists on an alternative disposal method. The mine proposed building a tailings impoundment on dry land, and federal officials said they will evaluate that proposal this year.
Once built, Kensington is expected to produce about 1 million ounces of gold.
The case is Coeur Alaska Inc. v. Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, 07-984; State of Alaska v. SACC, 07-990.