In a major setback for the people and wildlife of southern Alaska, the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 today that the Coeur d’Alene Mines Corporation can legally under the Clean Water Act dump more than 4.5 million tons of “slurry”—a mining waste byproduct that’s a mixture of crushed rock and water—in the Lower Slate Lake in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. The ruling overturned a May 2007 decision by a lower appeals court denying Coeur d’Alene’s permit, which applies to its Kensington Gold Mine north of Juneau, Alaska's capital city.
But isn’t the Clean Water Act supposed to protect our lakes and rivers and other water sources? Well, yes. For nearly 30 years, the CWA expressly prohibited pumping harmful waste materials into waters, allowing only "fill material" for building structures like seawalls and levees to be dumped, and only then with permits from the Army Corps of Engineers. But in 2002, the Bush Administration tweaked the definition of "fill" to include dangerous waste products with an EPA memo that the public never saw. The memo's expansion of the "fill" definition permitted harmful slurry dumping into lakes and other water sources. In making its decision today, the Supreme Court relied on this memo.
Groups like Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council strenuously opposed the permit for Coeur d’Alene, citing the catastrophic damage the dumping could inflict on the Lower Slate Lake. History shows us just how dangerous mining can be and the kind of havoc major mining operations can wreak in the surrounding environment. In 2006, Mother Jones contributor Kenneth Miller chronicled the struggle of the city of Igiugig, Alaska with a new mega-mining operation in its backyard—an operation that promised economic prosperity but threatened to harm not just the local rivers and lakes but the salmon, bears and other wildlife. (And people, too: As Josh Harkinson wrote earlier this year, mining on the whole can be a dirty, dangerous business, not least for those who live nearby and who sometimes can’t even drink their own tap water.)
The environmental groups criticizing the ruling also warned of the precedent set by the Supreme Court’s decision today. "If a mining company can turn Lower Slate Lake in Alaska into a lifeless waste dump, other polluters with solids in their wastewater can potentially do the same to any water body in America," Earthjustice president Trip Van Noppen said in a press release.
That said, there remains a glimmer of hope for preventing the widespread contamination of America’s water bodies. The Army Corps of Engineers or the EPA could reverse the ruling, as could new legislation in Washington. Like Reps. Frank Pallone and Dave Reichert’s Clean Water Protection Act, H.R. 1310, which would exclude waste material from the CWA’s "fill material" definition. The legislation has considerable backing in the House with 151 co-sponsors, and is in subcommittee right now.
Although much of the damage done to our environment during Bush's Holy War on Nature cannot be undone, quick action on the part of lawmakers could repeal the EPA's unfortunate mining loophole before it's too late.