More than 105,000 gallons of mine waste spilled at Kensington Mine

ohnson Creek runs cloudy with mine tailing contamination on January 31.

Written by Aaron Brakel

March 27, 2024

Reports of more than 105,000 gallons of mine waste spilling from a ruptured tailings pipeline at Coeur Alaska Kensington Mine in late January hit the news yesterday.

While Coeur Alaska claims the spilled tailings are geochemically inert and “pose no long-term impacts to Johnson Creek,” the spill contained significant contaminant loads. The day the spill was discovered, copper, lead, iron, cadmium, manganese and aluminum levels found in Johnson Creek were well above limits in Alaska Water Quality Standards. We’re concerned that contaminants in the tailings that remain in Johnson Creek could be mobilized again.

We support NOAA Fisheries’ request for an emergency Essential Fish Habitat assessment and will be paying close attention to how the Forest Service, EPA and state agencies follow up.

This incident reinforces our commitment to scrutinizing mine permitting and operating processes and pushing for stronger protections, more rigorous assessments, higher standards and greater accountability.

ohnson Creek runs cloudy with mine tailing contamination on January 31.

Johnson Creek runs cloudy with mine tailing contamination on January 31. Image from Coeur Alaska Kensington Mine Spill Response Report

A hole in the tailings pipeline allowed mine tailing slurry to leak and flow into Johnson Creek.

A hole in the tailings pipeline allowed mine tailing slurry to leak and flow into Johnson Creek. Image from Coeur Alaska Kensington Mine.

This image from Coeur Alaska Kensington Mine shows where the spill occurred.<br />

This image from Coeur Alaska Kensington Mine shows where the spill occurred.

Photos from Coeur Alaska’s spill report show a misaligned HDPE pipe weld section, which led to a raised lip in the pipe creating turbulence in the tailings slurry flow, abrasion, wear and eventual failure. A misaligned weld section raises serious concerns about construction oversight of the tailings pipeline and whether similar issues may occur elsewhere along the 3.5-mile route. We would like to see the Forest Service conduct a thorough investigation of the pipeline’s construction and assess the quality control and quality assurance measures that were used, including the equipment used, crew training and supervision. This spill should not have happened.

SEACC is concerned about the operating approach at Kensington that led to the spill not being detected for nearly a day. Coeur’s report says the spill duration was 23 hours and it was 20 hours before a mill operator identified the pipeline pressure drop as problematic. Proper protocols, equipment, training, and proper detection and alarm settings could have prevented this spill from reaching Johnson Creek. The Forest Service and the State of Alaska should have ensured that measures were in place to detect and respond to a breach in the tailings pipeline.

Here’s a reading list (including some linked above), if you want to dig in more.

Thanks for all you do to fight for clean water!

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