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Mine committee agrees water quality essential

Divided on mechanism to ensure safety

Posted: April 9, 2011 - 9:37pm

City engineer Rorie Watt said drinking water quality is the “highest priority” the city has in considering conditions in which the AJ Mine could reopen.

Watt, the staff liaison for the AJ Mine Advisory Committee, reviewed the common points of the seven-member committee reports. Watt received more than 20 pages on 14 topics. The committee reviewed and discussed Watt’s initial report — which broke down each topic with objectives, conditions, comments and recommendations.

The committee was united in ensuring the quality and quantity of the water supply, which accounts for two-thirds of Juneau’s functional water supply. It was divided, however, on the mechanisms to enforce and support that assurance.

Watt’s objective to assign protection of the Gold Creek water system the highest priority included the requirements the quality not be reduced. It would require the daily, unannounced monitoring of water quantity and quality by an independent party. The mine operator must provide specific financial warranty to insure against harm to the drinking water system.

Committee members recommended changing language from “daily” to “frequent” and having the city monitor it, not an independent party.

Committee member Frank Bergstrom said he wanted to see the city more involved in enforcing compliance.

Watt said the reason for the requirement on quantity is the realization that throughout the summer months and most of the year, there is a surplus of water flowing through Salmon Creek and sufficient supply in Gold Creek. In the winter, however, Salmon Creek tends to dry up and there would be a shortage.

Committee member Laurie Ferguson-Craig said she visited the water department this week and talked to them about the scenario where Juneau’s reservoir was almost out of water this winter due to generator and power failures.

“We are in a far riskier situation than I ever thought we were,” she said. “We need to really take care of this place. We can’t say Salmon Creek is an alternative water supply. I don’t think that’s enough. There isn’t an alternative water supply. We’ve got to identify and get ready an alternate water supply.”

Watt said one key thing about a mine is that it will need water.

“The water is going to need to come from this system somewhere,” he said. “No water means no mill.”

Sam Smith, committee member, suggested they add a provision requiring the mine to recycle water as much as possible in winter months. He said they can’t just shut down the mills “willy nilly.”

Committee chairwoman Donna Pierce said they can’t just stipulate no reduction in water quantity because that’s too broad.

Craig asked in a situation where there is low flow, who has the water rights inside the mountain?

Smith said AEL&P does, however he didn’t feel the company would “be nasty” but from a legal standpoint the company could choose how the water was divided.

Committee member Gregg Erickson said that’s why in his comments he suggested requiring the mine company to come up with an alternate source of water.

He said while the issues wouldn’t go away with the specific water quality arguments, a lot of the issues would be diminished if an alternate water source were developed.

Erickson said everyone should come to understand that if the water supply were contaminated or affected, there’s now clear answer as to how the city would still have a functioning water supply.

That could mean building pipes and planning a filtering facility. He suggested Mendenhall River, Sheep Creek or potential water sources on Douglas Island. Watt said that kind of a project would cost roughly $30 million to $40 million.

Kurt Fredriksson, committee member, suggested they recommend the mine look at developing an underground reservoir for water in low-flow periods.

Smith said that could be probably be done and would prevent the mine from being shut off from water.

Bergstrom said he was on board with that because the city’s water comes first.

Watt also discussed flow, and part of the requirement would be that the mine has to appropriately manage it.

Erickson said there are other factors not related to the mine that could someday affect flow, such as an earthquake.

Watt said the committee should think about what exposure the mine has in that responsibility. Protecting the water supply from mining operations is one thing, but creating a stipulation against a mining company for natural disasters is another, Watt said.

Fredriksson said if they’re truly concerned about the water supply and environment, they should recommend to the city that royalties paid would go toward ensuring the efficiency and security of the overall city water supply.

The committee will meet again on April 28 and will be using that time to take public comment. Public comment will likely be limited to 3-4 minutes per person.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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