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Citizens split on mine issue

Discussion is nearly unanimous on preserving, expanding city's water supply

Posted: April 21, 2011 - 10:01pm  |  Updated: April 22, 2011 - 7:30am
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Members of the AJ Mine Advisory Committee listen to Bill Leighty give his public comments on the potential in a full Assembly Chambers Thursday evening.   Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Members of the AJ Mine Advisory Committee listen to Bill Leighty give his public comments on the potential in a full Assembly Chambers Thursday evening.

Editor's note: This article has been edited to correct the name of the CEO of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce.

Citizens packed the City Assembly chambers Thursday night giving divided opinions to the AJ Mine Advisory Committee. Two things are clear: Citizens are nearly evenly divided on whether the mine should be reopened, and the top concern for almost all is Juneau’s drinking water.

About 20 people testified against reopening the mine under any circumstances, while nearly the same number supported a mining project and a handful expressed concerns but no position. Most in favor of pursuing a reopened mine, though, wanted conditions placed on any company that would drill for gold in downtown Juneau. A few others expressed concerns, but not a clear position.

One woman, Michelle, who’s full name was not immediately available, said she was angry.

“When people talk about the legacy of our children, grandchildren — I am one of those young people that moved to Juneau because it is beautiful, because it is clean, because its safe,” she said. “Right now I just want to reiterate, for every person that sits in this room, there are 10 people sitting at home thinking about this, worrying about this. This matters to us. It’s not a small concern.”

Sarah Shane, a wildlife biologist, said she isn’t against mining but is opposed to reopening the AJ because it’s located downtown.

“It’s a lot harder to reverse damage than to prevent it,” she said. “... I am personally not willing to risk my water supply for this low ore body.”

Others said all the assurances in the world from mining companies will not prevent pollution and cited significant safety risks within the industry for not only miner safety, but also environmental and quality of life issues.

Guy Archibald, an ex-miner, analytical chemist and microbiologist, said 73 percent of mines end up polluting even with environmental assessment processes.

Carl Schrader, who worked for 10 years with the Department of Environmental Conservation in water quality, thought financial assurances would be key and proper bonding would need to be in place for the mine to reopen. He emphasized drinking water is the key issue.

“Mines do pollute,” he said. “Once they pollute, it’s difficult to control and takes a long time to control. Mines say they can do it right, but history shows us that is not the case.”

He said Greens Creek and Kensington have also had pollutant issues — Greens Creek in handling acid issues and Kensington with construction runoff. Schrader said both have been corrected, but that took time and it didn’t involve anyone’s drinking water.

Schrader said in order for them to move forward with a mine downtown, the city absolutely needs to develop a solid plan for a backup drinking water supply.

Those both in favor and opposed to reopening the mine advocated for developing an alternate drinking supply. Many suggested that a fully-functional backup drinking supply needs to be in place before any development of the mine can take place.

That backup supply would not necessarily be paid for solely by the company. Some suggested the city take the initiative since the water supply is naturally at risk and others felt both city and the potential company could work together.

Thane residents also spoke up, and while some were opposed to reopening the mine others said in order for it to be possible, the same water quality and quantity assurances need to be provided to its residents — who are not on city water and rely on wells.

In favor of redeveloping AJ, residents spoke up for bolstering Juneau’s economy and looking to the industry that founded Juneau.

Roughly the same amount of people said yes, the mine could possibly reopen — with conditions.

Fred Marino favored the mine saying it could employ 300-400 people during construction and 200 during operation.

He said Juneau should have a diversified economy. Marino said it is the duty of the city to pursue a viable mining company to develop the mine.

Cathie Roemmich, of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce, favored the mine and spoke on behalf of the Chamber.

She cautioned the committee on setting to many conditions, saying Alaska already ranks 50th in business development possibilities among U.S. states.

“It will be nearly impossible for anybody to have a desire to come and look at this project,” she said.

Roemmich further criticized committee member Laurie Ferguson Craig for her My Turn opinion piece in the Empire this week.

“It is wrong for a committee member to campaign against the project before the process was done,” Roemmich said. “I think it would be acceptable to remove that person.”

Roemmich said she couldn’t think of anyone who would intentionally damage the community. She said Juneau could be able to take great “pride in our community to be able to do a mine in downtown Juneau and do it right.”

Neil McKinnon, a long-time Juneau resident, suggested the committee’s conditions were too restrictive and didn’t feel any company would be willing to bite on a project. He said the city should develop a second water supply, and the economic details in the report should be clarified, but the rest of the conditions should be left to permitting and other regulatory requirements.

One resident said Juneau is a mining community and it needs to look at new mines if it wants to continue that segment of industry because the mines have a life span.

“The conditions I see here border on designing the mine,” he said. “The committee’s job is not to design the mine.”

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

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