Conservation groups ask DEC to reconsider Palmer Project permits

A map of the proposed excavation site, waste rock stockpiles and water diffusing system. (From the Application for Waste Management Permit for the Palmer Phase II Exploration Project)

Constantine Metal Resources cleared several major milestones towards developing a mine at the Palmer Project this year. Among them was getting all the necessary regulatory permits and approvals to expand their exploration operations next year. Conservation groups say the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation rubber stamped the company’s plans with inadequate data. They are appealing the permit decision.

“There are details of the permit itself that we think are, were really done poorly,” said Gershon Cohen, the Executive Director of Alaska Clean Water Advocacy. He’s among those asking that the permit be sent back to the agency.

“The fact that they would go forward with this permit shows that the agencies are not there for us,” Cohen said. “It really speaks to how important it is that we as a community do whatever we can to try to protect our way of life here because nobody else is watching out for us.”

Cohen’s group, along with Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and others say the state needs to do more research on everything from ground and surface water to local snowfall and avalanche risk. But that’s not all.

“We believe that they actually have given them the wrong permit,” Cohen said.

He says the agency should have required an Alaska Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which is required for waste water that will flow into surface water, like rivers or streams. It’s a tougher permit to get and requires federal approvals. Instead, the state issued a less stringent waste management permit.

The groups have not ruled out litigation. Cohen says the chances of taking their complaints to superior court is high. They plan to appeal the agency’s decision during an informal hearing. It’s the first step in due process.

“It’s our check and balances system to make sure we’re doing things the way we’re supposed to,” said Allan Nakanishi, who manages the state’s wastewater discharge authorization program. He and his team of engineers permitted the Palmer Project.

Nakanishi says that the permitting process for the Palmer Project was a little unusual because it’s still in the exploration phase. Exploration projects don’t usually generate much wastewater.

“Ordinarily, on an exploration project, once the drilling has been completed, they’re able to reclaim the site and close it. And so there isn’t a continuous discharge. In this situation, we have to address the continuous discharge. So we are required the permit,” he said.

Continuous water discharge is common for mine portals, which is what Constantine is permitted to build for its exploration. This exploration tunnel could be used as mining infrastructure if Constantine decides to mine.

Nakanishi says that overall the wastewater from the project will stay underground and doesn’t pose a threat to surface waters, so the less stringent waste management permit should cover the exploration operations.

But, he adds, there’s a footnote to the permit that says if wastewater does indeed end up in rivers or streams, Constantine will have to shut that part down.

The permit dispute could slow progress at the Palmer Project.

“We expect these things,” said Liz Cornejo, Constantine’s Vice President of External and Community Affairs. She says the company delayed the expansion project in part because they anticipated dealing with permitting disputes.

“It’s certainly common in our industry and something we work through.” she said.

The company hasn’t been officially informed by the state that the permits are being contested because DEC has not yet decided whether to grant or deny the request for an informal review.

Cornejo says Constantine is prepared to work with the community and the agency.

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