A court decision this week blocking a Southeast Alaska gold mine's waste disposal method could create more hurdles for the world-class Pebble copper and gold deposit.
If the ruling stands, the Kensington Gold Mine near Juneau -- which is nearing the end of construction -- will be forced into a costly redesign.
But Alaska miners said this week they also are worried about the implications for Pebble, a massive and controversial deposit in the headwaters of two of Bristol Bay's salmon-rich drainages, and other possible mines in Alaska's future.
"The immediate solution is to get an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, " said Steve Borell, executive director of the Alaska Mining Association.
Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Justice officials declined to give their interpretation of the court's decision this week.
They also wouldn't say if they plan to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.
State regulators and the mining industry say the ruling could erect new barriers to permitting mines in Alaska.
The implications seem clearest at Pebble. The massive copper and gold prospect is perched next to a watery mecca for salmon and other fish prized by fishermen.
If it becomes a mine, Pebble could be one of the largest copper mines in the world and the largest gold mine in North America, by industry estimates.
The company exploring Pebble says it's not certain the ruling will affect its plans.
"We don't know if there will be any implications for us, " said Sean Magee, spokesman for Northern Dynasty Mines Inc.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision said regulators cannot allow mines to sidestep a Clean Water Act provision that stops them from discharging pollutants into lakes, wetlands or other water bodies.
A 2002 rule change allowed regulators to redefine mining waste as "fill."
But the appellate court said Kensington's waste slurry did not comply with another part of the Clean Water Act, which says waste from copper, gold and other metal mines must have "zero discharge" of pollutants.
The Pebble project's final design hasn't been determined -- it's still in the exploration phase -- but engineering reports filed last year for the project near Iliamna Lake suggested storing billions of tons of tailings in valleys near the mineral deposit. Those plans include submerging a small lake.
State regulators said this week that it could be difficult to find a dry location to store Pebble's rock waste. Other mining companies could face the same problem in the future because the state has so many wetlands, they said.
One alternative for mining companies would be to drain wetlands, fill them with clean material and then put a mine waste disposal facility on top, said Ed Fogels, acting division director for permitting at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
While that might be legal, it seems absurd, Fogels said.
Converting an area to dry land before using it for tailings disposal would be more costly and could possibly have a greater environmental impact than just using the natural setting, Fogels said.
Kensington officials have said previously that they would save millions of dollars by piping their waste into the lake instead of storing it on land, as they had previously sought to do in the mid-1990s.
Environmentalists said it was dangerous to allow Kensington or any other mine to start putting waste in lakes.
The 2002 rule change "was an attempt to deregulate the mining industry, " said Tom Waldo, an Juneau attorney for Earthjustice, which handled the Kensington lawsuit.
Though Northern Dynasty officials haven't designed a mine plan yet, the court ruling would prevent the company from sticking with its preliminary applications to the state.
The plans included submerging Frying Pan Lake, a shallow, fish-bearing lake, and some streams with tailings.
It was just an engineering concept, Magee said. "We're looking at many, many alternatives, " he said.
"When we apply for permits, we're going to have to design a project that complies with all the laws, including those that might be influenced by this decision, " he said.
Daily News reporter Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4317.