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By Shane Lasley
Mining News 

Greens Creek gets 10 more years

Forest Service allows limited expansion of tailings facility; decision underscores challenges of striking a balance in the Tongass

 

Last updated 9/29/2013 at Noon



The U.S, Forest Service Sept. 6 agreed to allow Hecla Mining Co. to expand its tailings facility at the Greens Creek Mine located in the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska, but only by a fraction of what the silver mining company requested.

This middle-of-the-road decision underscores the challenges of managing the integrity of the United States largest forest, protecting the salmon and other habitat found there; while allowing local residents, Alaska and the nation to realize the economic benefits from harvesting the rich natural bounty of Southeast Alaska.

At 17 million acres, the Tongass Forest blankets most of the Southeast Alaska Panhandle. This vast region encompasses islands of the Alexander Archipelago, fjords, glaciers, and peaks of the Coast Mountains. Below the surface of the magnificent scenery that draws tourists from around the world lies rich stores of silver, gold, copper, platinum group metals and rare earth elements.

Two mines - Hecla's Greens Creek silver mine and Coeur Mining Inc.'s Kensington gold mine - are located within the Tongass Forest. A number of other mining projects, including the Niblack volcanogenic massive sulfide project being explored by Heatherdale Resources Ltd. and the Bokan REE project being advanced by Ucore Rare Metal Inc., are also found there.

Middle-of-the-road

When Hecla filed for permits to expand the tailings at Greens Creek, the company had hoped it would secure the authorization to build a facility that could service the silver mine for 30-50 years. In addition to long-term security, the large facility would have provided operational efficiencies and a smaller environmental footprint as opposed to two or more smaller tailings facilities.

This proposal, though, included covering about 4,000 feet of fish habitat in Tributary Creek.

To avoid Tributary Creek, the U.S. Forest Service proposed two alternatives. The first, known as alternative C, proposed no expansion of the current tailings storage area but a new facility in the Fowler Creek area some three miles away. The second, alternative D, allowed for adding about 10-15 years capacity at the current tailings area plus added capacity at the proposed new site. Both alternatives added enough capacity to handle current production rates at Greens Creek for at least 30 years.

Tongass National Forest Supervisor Forrest Cole selected a modified version of alternative D that allows Hecla to expand the tailings capacity at Greens Creek, but falls well short of the long-term storage the company had wanted.

"This decision was an unusually difficult one for me to make," Cole wrote.

Alternative D-modified authorizes Hecla to expand the existing tailings disposal facility by about 18 acres, farther south into Admiralty Island National Monument. An additional eight acres is authorized to be developed outside of the monument for rock quarry and reclamation material storage sites and for expanding an existing water management pond.

This allows Hecla to expand the capacity of the facility by about 2.1 million cubic yards. At the expected rate of fill, this expansion will extend the life of the Greens Creek Mine by roughly 10 years, to around 2029.

While falling far short of what Hecla had requested, the modified alternative avoids Tributary Creek and provides the mining company time to permit a facility to meet its longer term goals.

"Knowing how strongly people feel about the issues raised by this project, I concluded there will be time to gather and analyze additional information before authorizing further impacts on the Tributary Creek watershed or a second tailings disposal facility and the associated effects such a facility would have," Cole explains.

"Thus, while I was hoping to avoid another relatively short-term decision, I have determined that it is the wiser course of action.

It allows time to gather and analyze additional information, to thoroughly consider all feasible ways to provide additional tailings disposal capacity, and to clearly and convincingly document such consideration through future NEPA processes."

The modified decision drew mixed reviews. Greens Creek advocates said the decision took too long and fell short of meeting the needs of a mining company that has shown good environmental stewardship.

"Since the permitting process began in 2010, I have repeatedly explained to the leadership of the USFS and USDA the Greens Creek Mine's solid track record and economic importance to northern Southeast Alaska. Today's decision provides some mid-term relief, but falls short of satisfying me or the mine operators or its 400 employees," Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska commented. "While I am disappointed in the outcome and the length of time it took to get here, USFS has been a good partner in helping to corral other federal agencies and keep the mine alive."

Conservationists, on the over hand, said the actions by the forest service drew a prudent equilibrium between environmental protections and resource development.

"We recognize that balancing the need for employment and resource extraction with the protection of important fish habitat is often difficult and complex, as it was in this case. Trout Unlimited appreciates Supervisor Cole's concern for Admiralty's critical fish habitat as well as his thoughtful and measured approach to the mine's expansion," Trout Unlimited Southeast Alaska Project Director Mark Kaelke.

Although the particulars of the selected alternative apply to this decision, the U.S. Forest Service said other action alternatives outlined in the final EIS could be reconsidered through future analyses.

Rigid "Roadless Rule"

While the U.S. Forest Service endeavored to strike a balance when considering expansion of the Greens Creek tailings facility, the so-called "Roadless Rule" provides the agency with little room to harmonize responsible resource development and environmental conservation on 9.3 million acres of the Tongass that has been deemed roadless.

"This cookie-cutter rule is a bad fit for Alaska," Begich said. "With high unemployment and high energy costs in Southeast Alaska, the Forest Service needs greater flexibility to address these issues.

Established in 2001 by the Clinton administration, the Roadless Area Conservation Rule prohibits road-building and logging in more than half of the Southeast Alaska Forest. Some see this conservation measure aimed at preventing further encroachment into national forests as establishing de facto wilderness.

In 2003, the Bush administration exempted the Tongass from the Roadless Rule, but a ruling by U.S. District Judge John W. Sedwick reversed the exemption in 2011.

The re-instatement of the Clinton-era conservation measure almost immediately added extra red tape for mining companies wanting to conduct exploration programs in the Tongass.

In 2011, four companies had to get permission from U.S. Forest Service's Washington D.C. office to conduct exploration programs on their respective properties.

The first two such approvals, Ucore Rare Metals Inc.'s Bokan Mountain rare earth element project on Prince of Wales Island and a locally owned polymetallic prospect on Woewodski Island, came from USDA Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Harris Sherman.

Two weeks later, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell gave the green light for Hecla and Heatherdale Resources Ltd. to conduct drill programs at Greens Creek and Niblack, respectively.

"These two projects will help employ Alaskans on important projects while providing crucial environmental safeguards," Sherman explained. "Both the Niblack and Green Creek projects will have minimal footprints - less than an acre apiece - with the potential for substantial boosts to local economies."

Sen. Begich applauded the decision but took the opportunity to highlight the need to cut red tape in the Tongass.

"Unfortunately, the fact that permits for these projects continue to require special review in Washington D.C. underscores the need to re-instate the Tongass exemption to the roadless rule," the democratic senator said at the time. "Undersecretary Sherman and Chief Tidwell have been receptive to our outreach on behalf of these projects in Southeast Alaska, and I am grateful. However, I think we would all be better served with a little less bureaucracy."

In 2011, Sen. Begich and Rep. Don Young introduced legislation aimed at exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule and re-introduced the companion bills in 2013.

"As we have seen time and time again, the one-size-fits-all approach rarely ever applies to Alaska," Rep. Young explained. "The economic well-being and way of life for many Alaskans relies on responsible resource development and this legislation will ensure that this rule doesn't harm Alaska more than it already has."

"With high unemployment and high energy costs in Southeast Alaska, the Forest Service needs greater flexibility to address these issues. Repealing the rule will help keep the few existing mills alive and allow for the development of hydro projects throughout the region as well as two promising mining projects on Prince of Wales Island," Begich said.

Instead of the all or nothing management style provided by the roadless rule, the Alaska Delegation would rather see stewardship of the national forest be guided by the the Tongass Land Management Plan, an adaptive management strategy implemented by Alaska-based U.S. Forest Service personnel.

Some flexibility

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, hosted Tidwell on an August visit to the Tongass, providing the forest service chief an opportunity to see first-hand the economic restraints the roadless rule places on the Tongass and the people who live there.

"With a five-year review of the Tongass National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan under way, it's timely and important for the chief to see things for himself on the ground," Sen. Murkowski explains on her website.

"Conservation is an important part of management, but it cannot be the only consideration. If our communities are going to survive and grow, the Tongass must support a full range of uses, including timber harvest, fishing, mining, and renewable energy development, as well as recreation and tourism," she added.

During the tour of the Tongass, Murkowski took Tidwell on a fly-over of the southern end of Prince of Wales Island, where the Bokan rare earth and Niblack polymetallic mine project are located.

In January Sen. Murkowski introduced S.181, a bill that calls for building a road through otherwise roadless areas of the Tongass - linking these prospect mines to the roughly 2,500 miles of roads that connect most of the communities on Prince of Wales Island.

U.S. Rep. Don Young introduced a companion bill, HR 587, in the House.

Both pieces of legislation, though, have stalled in committee and hold a slim chance of getting any further.

During his visit to the Tongass, Tidwell told reporters that the government has an obligation to provide reasonable access when there is a mining right involved. The U.S. Forest Service chief suggested there may be some flexibility under the roadless rule that would allow for moving ahead with projects important to the economic vitality of the Tongass and thereby Southeast Alaska.

 

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