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Assembly approves $250,000 for water study

Posted: August 22, 2011 - 9:00pm

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly approved funding for a water study related to the AJ Mine Monday night, but not before one Assembly member unsuccessfully tried to pass amendments that directly addressed concerns expressed by citizens.

The city proposed taking $250,000 from the sales tax budget reserve to designate to the engineering department to conduct a drinking water study and related issues. Essentially, Engineering Director Rorie Watt will take on the AJ Mine study and some of the funds will be used to pay for either an additional staff person or to pay for extra staff time. A position of deputy engineering director will be created, but it’s uncertain whether that means a new hire or shifting the work burden among existing staff in the city’s Engineering Department.

Watt was asked by Assemblyman Peter Freer on Monday how exactly the water study would transpire. Watt said he envisions coming up with a draft for the study and seeking public comment to determine if the content is sufficient or if there are further items to be studied. Watt said he would do that for every step along the way because he envisions a high level of scrutiny and debate — as he said there should be.

Watt said he didn’t know what a water study would cost, as it would depend entirely upon how long that process would go on. He said he cannot gauge in this case how long that would take.

The Assembly heard public testimony from Tina Brown, president of the Southeast chapter of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, Guy Archibald, a mining and clean water coordinator for SEACC and Gareth Hummel. All opposed designating the funds, largely because of how non-specific the funding designation was.

Hummel said the issue of reopening the mine was incredibly divisive before, and it remains divisive. He recommended the Assembly drop the entire thing.

Archibald said that if a study is to be done, that it actually have weight and that the Assembly follow its conclusion.

Thane Neighborhood Association president Larri Spengler said the association has no stance on this particular matter, but it is watching all activity with the AJ Mine closely. Spengler said the association’s board is appreciative the Assembly is taking the issue seriously and moving slowly, considering all the issues before pushing forward with proposals or trying to cater to specific mining operations.

Assemblywoman Ruth Danner proposed an amendment to take the mine title and most descriptors out of the ordinance language. She said that many people see this is a move forward explicitly for the mine.

“Members of our community are concerned about clean water,” she said. “They want us to find second source for a water supply and make certain Juneau has clean drinking water. This ordinance should be redirected.”
Danner said that in 1992, under an AJ Mine project study, it states that the city is proceeding with plans to improve water flow for a secondary water supply.

“It seems to me we made this commitment to do the work quite some time ago,” Danner said. “I think it’s important to follow through regardless of what happens with the AJ mine.”

Assemblyman Merrill Sanford disagreed, saying the study needs to be as upfront as possible and it does include impacts on drinking water if the AJ should open.

Danner’s proposal failed 4-3 with Danner, Freer, and Karen Crane in favor, Sanford, Mayor Bruce Botelho, Johan Dybdahl and Mary Becker opposed. David Stone and Malcolm Menzies recused themselves from the entire discussion and action due to conflicts of interest.

Danner then raised a second amendment, seeking to give more assurances to the public the Assembly is not at the “point of no return” and would have specifically set that point. Danner proposed setting that point as identified in the AJ Mine Advisory Committee Report as in Appendix ‘F,’ which lists a rough guideline of events. She said at the point where the city would solicit a junior or major mining company, the citizens should vote on whether to move forward.

Danner said that way the city can get its studies done and see whether the mine is feasible and the water supply safe, and citizens can be reassured that there is a distinct reevaluation point where they have their say.

“We hear from people on both extremes,” Danner said. “We don’t hear from the people in the middle. We need to take a thermometer reading of our community and see whether they’re really for this or against it. We are all in love in one way or another with our community. It’s a wonderful place to raise a family, to live and work. We all have different visions to what it means to preserve what is Juneau. It is very important for us to listen to one another. Listen to ideas that are broad and share them. In order to come to a conclusion that we’ll all be proud of and not afraid of it. I’m afraid without committing to listening to our electorate. If we’re afraid to listen to what the people have to say, it sends a message about the project.”

Botelho phrased the amendment to the ordinance to say that it is “the intent of the Assembly that CBJ receive approval of the voters before it solicits a junior” or major mining company.

Freer asked if it would be a legally binding vote or merely advisory. City Attorney John Hartle said it could be either. Botelho also noted the language in the amendment uses the term “intent” which means a future Assembly would not necessarily be bound to requiring the voter measure, it would still have to come to vote before the Assembly.

Assembly members Sanford, Becker, Freer and Dybdahl said this is not the appropriate place to put such a measure “so early in the game.”

“At this early stage of the game, there’s no reason to do that,” Sanford said. “We’re just trying to deal with whether or not it is feasible, whether or not it is safe for our water system. We have to spend a little bit of money to do that. I just don’t see the need for this right now.”

The amendment failed, with Dybdahl, Freer, Becker, Sanford and Botelho opposed; Crane and Danner in favor.

The Assembly then unanimously passed the ordinance appropriating the funds as initially written.

In other business, Freer called a motion for reconsideration of the Atlin Drive/Mendenhall Loop Road rezoning. It failed 5-4 with Freer, Crane, Danner, and Botelho in favor of reconsideration; Sanford, Dybdahl, Stone, Menzies and Becker opposed. That means the prior action of rezoning the lot to Light Commercial stands.

The Assembly also unanimously approved placing both school initiatives on the ballot — one for replacing the turf at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park and the other for upgrading the heating system at Auke Bay Elementary to ground-source heat pumps.

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

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