Dunleavy, DEC commissioner tour Palmer Project as agency reconsiders key permit

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, talks with reporters about his hope that the Legislature complete its work on the state budget and permanent fund dividends. He sat down with reporters in the governor's office in the Capitol in Juneau, May 29, 2019. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy talks with reporters in the governor’s office in the Capitol in Juneau, May 29, 2019. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman/KTOO and Alaska Public Media)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jason Brune reportedly toured Constantine Metal Resources’ Palmer Project on Monday afternoon. There was no announcement before or after, and the governor’s office didn’t confirm the reason for the trip by Tuesday afternoon.

But the Canadian company’s spokesperson Liz Cornejo confirms the company was enthusiastic about the high-level visit.

“We were very excited to have the governor and others visit us,” she said. “(The governor is) very supportive of the whole mining industry and is looking for economic development opportunities in the state.”

The Palmer Project is a proposed copper, zinc and silver mine about 35 miles north of Haines. Supporters see potential for job growth in the local economy. But the mineral exploration project has come under fire from conservation groups and a local tribe, which have sued to block exploratory drilling.

The same day the delegation toured the site, the project was delivered a potential setback for its permitting.

A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling over a case in Hawaii says that if wastewater goes from groundwater to surface water, it is regulated by the Clean Water Act. The case was being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. But now that’s unlikely, as the Hawaii case moves toward a settlement that would make the 9th Circuit ruling the law of the land.

And if that happens, the Palmer Project may need a different type of wastewater permit altogether. That was made clear in a letter DEC sent to the mineral exploration company on Monday.

A drill site at the Palmer Project north of Haines. (Photo courtesy of Constantine Metal Resources)

Gene McCabe works in DEC’s Division of Water in Anchorage.

“We need to spend more time evaluating whether the particular circumstances of the Palmer Project permit are aligned sufficiently with the particular points of the 9th Circuit case,” McCabe said. “And if they are, then the 9th Circuit case may change the methodology used for permitting.”

DEC officials said revoking a permit is rare. McCabe said he hasn’t seen a permit pulled back in his seven years at the department.

Mine critic Gershon Cohen of Alaska Clean Water Advocacy welcomed the delay. But he said he’s puzzled the federal case is an issue now.

“I’m a little surprised, because I did raise the issue before during the permit review period and they seemed to brush it off at the time,” Cohen said.

He said the governor bringing his top environmental regulator to visit a project under his review doesn’t have great optics.

“It’s unfortunate that we have to spend our time, frankly, to be the watchdog. While the agency Department of Environmental Conservation is supposed to be being the watchdog for us,” he said.

The DEC said it will decide whether Constantine needs to start its wastewater permit process from scratch within the next 90 days.

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