Canadian policy to be used as bad example
Sat, January 10, 2009
By PETER ZIMONJIC, SUN MEDIA NATIONAL BUREAU
OTTAWA -- On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will begin hearing a case that will single out Canadian policy as an example of how not to protect the environment.
The State of Alaska and Coeur Alaska Inc., a mining company, are trying to win permission to dump toxic waste from a gold mine into a fish-bearing lake in the Berners Bay area near Alaska's coast.
The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is fighting to save the lake and has asked MiningWatch Canada to explain how the practice here is wreaking havoc.
"There's lots of parallels between the Canadian and American side," said council spokesperson Rob Cadmus.
"On the Canadian side, the changes there give us perspective on what could happen over here and we don't want to go there.
"We don't want the American side to follow that example."
The controversy dates back to 2002, when an amendment to the Canadian Fisheries Act allowed five lakes, long since destroyed by mining operations, to be reclassified as "tailings impoundment areas."
The amendment then lay dormant until 2006, when the Canadian government used it to grant mining company Teck Cominco permission to turn two healthy lakes into tailing impoundment areas.
Four more lakes have since been approved and more applications are pending.
Mining companies stand to save hundreds of millions of dollars by dumping the waste into lakes rather than building their own expensive tailings ponds.
"Canada used to prohibit that practice and then they opened the door a crack and said they would do it for a couple of mines and now everybody wants to do it," said lawyer Tom Waldo, who is representing the conservation council at the Supreme Court in Washington.
"Canada is getting into a position now where all new mines opening up are trying to get permits to use lakes."
In 1972, the U.S. Clean Water Act prohibited the dumping of toxic substances into American waters.
But a regulatory change in 2002 -- similar to the one in Canada -- allowed the toxic byproducts of mining operations to be dumped into lakes.
Not long after, Coeur Alaska Inc. began the battle to use Lower Slate Lake to dump the tailings from the Kensington Mine Project.
Waldo and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council are concerned it will set a dangerous precedent that could send the U.S. down the Canadian path.
"The lesson Americans should learn from our experience in Canada is just how quickly mining companies will move to take advantage of the huge cost savings involved in using lakes and rivers as mine waste dumps," said Catherine Coumans of MiningWatch Canada.
Calls to Coeur Alaska Inc. and Alaska's attorney general were not returned.