Environmental groups, residents push back against Constantine's exploration permits
August 8, 2019
At least five local and out-of-state environmental groups and individuals filed informal requests for review to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, asking it to resolve questions on the Constantine Metal Resources waste management permit approved last month.
Critics’ concerns claimed: lack of proof that underground discharge of wastewater won’t connect to nearby tributary of the Chilkat River, that freezing temperatures will render the wastewater treatment systems ineffective in winter and that trigger limits for water quality standards exceed state levels.
“The major concern is that there is an extremely high likelihood that if this project goes forward, that the pollutants will reach the watershed and pollute salmon habitat,” said Lynn Canal Conservation executive director Jessica Plachta.
Last month, two state agencies approved Constantine’s waste management and reclamation plan permits that advance its second phase of operations: building a wastewater treatment system and a waste-rock storage facility for year-round drilling.
Next summer, the company plans to blast a one-mile tunnel under a glacier 18 miles upstream of Klukwan and 35 miles from Haines. Constantine will collect discharge water from the tunnel to temporarily store in underground settling ponds before releasing it back underground, or sending it through pipes to a surface settling pond and then pumping it back underground through perforated pipes called diffusers.
Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources published responses to 31 of 218 comments submitted to the agency, but many people who submitted comments say they didn’t get a sufficient answer, or an answer at all.
In response to concerns that an avalanche might destroy fuel storage or settling ponds, state agencies wrote that “The Waste Management Permit does not account for acts of nature such as avalanches.”
“They are arbitrarily narrowing the scope of the permit,” Guy Archibald of Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) said. “That’s an abuse of the agencies’ discretion.”
Though the permit stipulates that “Land application discharge shall not form a connection with waters of the U.S.,” several critics claim that a breach is inevitable, and hasn’t been properly tested for.
Tribal president of Klukwan, Kimberley Strong, requested a tracer-dye study to evaluate the degree of hydrologic connection between the proposed diffusers and Glacier Creek.
“The agencies failed to demonstrate to our tribe that the proposed water treatment system would treat contaminated ground water before it is transported downstream into our food sources,” Strong wrote in the group’s appeal.
DEC program manager Allan Nakanishi said the agency did not authorize a tracer-dye test, but instead approved a temporarily limited discharge to the upper diffuser under increased monitoring and specified discharge limits for a 120-day period.
“We approved the lower land discharge point,” Nakanishi said. “The upper land discharge point, we had concerns whether the discharge would remain subsurface. The permit requires heightened monitoring so that we could get information back and make a determination if the upper diffuser is truly subsurface or should be covered under an Alaska Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (APDES) permit.”
Several critics argued that DEC should have told Constantine to apply for an APDES permit to begin with, which deals with surface water discharge rather than groundwater.
In 2017, Constantine conducted a study that noted seepage from the upper testing pit to the lower testing pit, roughly at the sites of the proposed upper and lower diffusers.
“Infiltration testing indicated a hydraulic connection from the upper Waterfall Creek test pit to the lower test pit over a distance of about 100 meters, as evidenced by seepage observed in the lower test pit during the infiltration test in the upper test pit,” the report says.
Citizen and fisherman Tim June argued that The Palmer Project meets and exceeds a precedent set in the Ninth Circuit Court of appeals in 2018 that re-established the intent for burden of proof for connectivity between a discharge point and navigable waterways from “hydrologically connected” to “fairly traceable.”
“The Palmer Project Permit already demonstrates the groundwater near its upper diffuser is hydrologically connected to Waterfall Creek,” June wrote. “This ‘fairly traceable’ connection between the upper diffuser and Waterfall Creek (a protected water of the US), under the Ninth Circuit Hawaii decision, necessarily requires an APDES discharge permit.”
The Department of Environmental Conservation regulates quarterly monitoring requirements and has set trigger limits for allowable mineral amounts in the water before the company is out of compliance with their permit, but those limits are higher than state water quality standards.
DEC’s Nakanishi said the trigger limits exceed water quality standards because they’re based on site-specific groundwater quality and not the standards that would apply to wastewater discharges to U.S. waters.
Constantine’s testing on three of four natural surface water sites show an excess of aluminum, manganese and iron.
“The trigger limits in the permit are designed to prevent groundwater contaminants from statistically increasing from the baseline groundwater conditions of the site,” Nakanishi said.
Manganese presents the largest discrepancy between trigger limit and state standards. At one of the surface water testing sites, the average measured total is at 47 micrograms per liter (ug/L), compared to a state standard of a maximum of 50 (ug/L, but DEC set the trigger limit at more than five times that maximum at 290 ug/L.
If mineral exceedances meet the tributaries, marine life will be put at risk, said Dave Chambers, founder of the Center for Science in Public Participation, a Montana-based mining technical assistance group that SEACC asked to participate in an informal request.
“Since groundwater doesn’t allow aquatic organism to live in it, then those standards don’t apply there, but that water is being discharged right next to the stream, so it’s going to seep in,” Chambers said.
“If you are setting a trigger level that’s higher than the state water quality standard, you are implicitly saying that there will be an exceedance of water quality standard,” Alaska Clean Water Advocacy director Gershon Cohen said. “What Constantine has designed in their operations is the best possible case scenario that can happen out there, when in fact their responsibility is to design the worst possible case scenario.”
Takshanuk Watershed council asked DEC in its informal review request to explain how Constantine will prevent settling ponds from freezing in the winter, and how they will conduct quarterly monitoring tests “beneath snow, ice and avalanche debris.”
Nakanishi said the department “doesn’t have an opinion” on dealing with winter conditions. “The permit stipulates that the disposal system must be maintained and operated in good working order,” he said.
Within 14 days, Division of Water director Amber LeBlanc will reach a decision to uphold the permit decision or to send it back to permit writer for reconsideration.
After the director’s decision is issued, critics can ask for an adjudicatory hearing with the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation Jason Brune within 30 days.
Constantine’s spokesperson Liz Cornejo said on Wednesday the company hadn’t yet been given formal information from the agencies, and couldn’t comment.