Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan and environmental groups appeal decision in mining case

Liz Cornejo explains the Palmer Project at a public forum focused on mining and water on Wednesday, April 18, 2018. Cornejo is vice president of community and external affairs for Canadian company Constantine Metal Resources Limited. (Photo by Daysha Eaton, KHNS)

Liz Cornejo explains the Palmer Project at a public forum focused on mining and water in 2018. Cornejo is vice president of community and external affairs for Canadian company Constantine Metal Resources. (Photo by Daysha Eaton/KHNS)

Groups suing the federal government over its approval of Constantine Metal Resources’ mine exploration plan are appealing a recent federal court decision at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A federal judge ruled in March that the Bureau of Land Management doesn’t have to consider future mine impacts when permitting for exploration. But the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan and a coalition of conservation groups is fighting on.

The case is local, but its outcome could have far-reaching effects over how the BLM permits mineral exploration across the country.

The plaintiffs are the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan and Lynn Canal Conservation. They are represented by environmental law firm Earthjustice and accuse BLM of violating federal environmental law. They argue that the federal agency can’t approve a mine one piece at a time.

“You need to sort of look at the full scope,” said Erin Whalen, an Earthjustice attorney in Juneau. “Our argument is that that includes the impact of a full-scale mine. And right now the agency hasn’t even taken an initial look, none at all, of what those impacts could be.”

When Constantine applied for permits in 2016, BLM only required they complete an environmental study of its exploratory drilling — not the effect of a full-blown mine.

The Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Lynn Canal Conservation, and Rivers Without Borders joined forces and filed a federal lawsuit in 2017.

They lost in March after a federal judge ruled in BLM’s favor. Judge Timothy M. Burgess reasoned that not every exploration project leads to a mine, so a full environmental review wasn’t warranted.

But Whalen argues that you wouldn’t explore for minerals if you didn’t plan to mine.

“So what we’ve argued here is that exploration doesn’t have any utility independent of actually developing a mine. The two are connected,” she said.

That’s the crux of the appeal filed with the federal court in San Francisco.

Chilkat Indian Village Tribal Council President Kimberley Strong said in an earlier interview that there’s a lot at stake for the health of the Chilkat River.

“This is really a big part of our livelihood, is traditional food gathering,” she said. “The salmon that runs in the Chilkat has been part of our life for thousands of years, and to endanger that is life threatening to us.”  

Constantine Metal Resources is in the advanced stages of mineral exploration at a site 35 miles north of Haines and 17 miles west of Klukwan. The project is controversial, but supporters see economic potential in developing a mine in the Upper Lynn Canal.

Constantine representative Liz Cornejo responded to requests for comment in an email. She said the court’s decision speaks for itself and that environmental groups are trying to make new laws for mine permitting in the West.

The company is working to secure permits for their second phase of exploration on Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority land.

The comment period for their application ends Wednesday, May 15.

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