ADEC approves waste management permit for tunnel excavation at the Palmer Project

A Constantine employee examines an area of the AG zone. (Photo courtesy of Constantine Metal Resources)

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has approved a waste management permit for a controversial mineral exploration project near the communities of Klukwan and Haines. Constantine Metal Resources plans to excavate a mile-long underground ramp at the Palmer Project in order to carry out more exploratory drilling.

Constantine’s Vice President of External Affairs, Liz Cornejo, says that a waste management permit was required in order to move on to the next phase of exploration at the Palmer Project.

“With excavating a tunnel, you’re taking rock out of the mountain and then there is water that will flow through the cracks and come out of the mountain as well,” Cornejo said. “This permit allows us to have a plan in place that is pre-approved as a contingency plan if we do encounter potential acid generating rocks.”

Constantine developed a plan to treat and discharge the wastewater using a diffuser system.

The public had 45 days to review the plan and submit comments to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) before the agency made a final decision on the waste management permit. 

Shannon Donahue is the Chilkat Watershed Organizer for Southeast Alaska Conservation Council. She is worried about where the water coming out of the tunnel would ultimately end up once discharged through the diffuser system. 

“There was no dye testing or anything done to determine whether the surface water and the groundwater are connected,” Donahue said. “When you are looking at discharging wastewater into the ground through the diffusers, we don’t know whether that’s going to wind up in the surface water or not.” 

Others raised concerns about water quality testing and the risk of avalanches dismantling the diffuser system in the winter. 

ADEC did issue the waste management permit in the end. The agency altered the final permit based on some of the comments received, but Cornejo says that the changes are minimal and won’t affect the company’s plans.

“There were some minor tweaks to some different monitoring levels and some flows and things, but in general it’s mostly the same as what was initially drafted and allows us to do all of the work we were initially planning to do,” Cornejo said. 

A few years ago, Constantine’s permits for mineral exploration at the Palmer Project faced a lawsuit filed by the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan and several conservation groups. The plaintiffs say that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) did not take into account the environmental impact of future mine development when it approved permits for the first phase of exploration. A federal court upheld BLM’s decision, but an appeal has been filed since then.

Jessica Plachta is the Executive Director of Lynn Canal Conservation, one of the groups involved in the lawsuit. She says the permit decision is disappointing but not surprising. 

“Agencies in the state of Alaska are very permissive when it comes to mine development, so this is what we expected. However, it does represent a step toward a very real hazard in our watershed,” Plachta said. 

Although Constantine has secured a waste management permit, there are a few more steps before excavation can begin. The Alaska Mental Health Trust owns the land where the proposed tunnel’s entrance is located and will need to approve a final plan of operations. But Cornejo says that the biggest missing piece is funding. 

“This is a major investment in the property and it’s going to require a lot of capital,” Cornejo said. “So we’ll be working toward putting that plan together, the budget and the contractors and the financing for that to hopefully get started next spring.”

Cornejo estimates once they have secured the funding it will take about a year to construct the tunnel. It’s unclear how long the tunnel would stay in place, but she says that if a mine were developed in the future, the tunnel could be used as a secondary access point.