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Court rules against Klukwan, conservation groups in BLM permitting lawsuit

A federal court ruled that the Bureau of Land Management does not have to consider future impacts of mine development before approving activities for mineral exploration. The decision has major implications for a mining project in the Chilkat Valley.

The Canadian company Constantine Metal Resources is conducting mineral exploration at a site known as the Palmer Project. At the moment, Constantine is assessing the site’s potential for mine development.

Kimberley Strong is tribal council president of the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan. The village is located on the banks of the Chilkat River, about 17 miles West of the Palmer Project. She worries that mining activity upstream could contaminate her community’s wild food sources.

“The sustainability for life in this valley has been here for thousands of years, and it’s what the natural environment has to offer us that keeps us here — that allows us to live off the land. The mine is putting that in jeopardy,” Strong said.

In 2016, the Bureau of Land Management approved Constantine’s plan to expand mineral exploration in the Chilkat Valley. The agency conducted an environmental assessment and received public comments. It found potential environmental impacts from exploration activity to be insignificant and gave Constantine the go-ahead.

Strong says she saw the mineral exploration plan as a step towards a full-fledged mine.

“Every little footprint is not significant, but when you put all of the footprints together it is really a very well stomped out trail. So my issue then is let’s look at what the stomped out impact is going to be, not the incremental steps,” Strong said.

So the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Lynn Canal Conservation and Rivers Without Borders filed a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management.

The plaintiffs argued that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act  by failing to consider the impacts of potential future mine development when it approved the operation plan.

But on Friday, Judge Timothy M. Burgess ruled BLM is not required to review potential future impacts from mine development before approving exploration activities.

The ruling hinged on whether mineral exploration and mine development are inextricably linked. The court found that they are not because mineral exploration does not always lead to mine development.

Strong is disappointed with the decision.

“Do we just ignore the fact that they’re putting millions of dollars into exploration? People don’t put millions of dollars into exploration without an expectation of going into the full-scale mining business. Are we going to feel guilty that we’ve allowed them to be incrementally permitted?”

Strong doesn’t know if there will be any further legal action in response to last week’s decision.

In a statement, Constantine Metal Resources wrote, “We believe the Court decided correctly on this matter and the Decision speaks for itself. Constantine remains committed to meaningful engagement with Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan and other stakeholders as we continue with the process of exploration and evaluation of the Palmer Project.”

Representatives from the Bureau of Land Management were unable to comment by broadcast time.