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My turn: Speak up at AJ Mine hearing tomorrow night

Posted: April 19, 2011 - 8:47pm

As a member of the city committee evaluating the AJ Mine I have been disappointed with the information we have provided the public in order for citizens to comment meaningfully at the April 21 public hearing. I offer these personal thoughts based upon many years of work scrutinizing the 1990s mine plan.

The challenge for the AJ Mine is its location: downtown Juneau. The low grade orebody is inside Mount Roberts, directly connected to the municipal drinking water supply, surrounded by residential neighborhoods, linked to the lively downtown tourism business district, wedged between an avalanche zone and ocean waterways, and scrutinized by skeptical citizens.

As majority land owner, the city has a duty to evaluate the mine’s viability as an asset to generate revenue. With gold selling for more than $1,440 per ounce, what had been a marginal orebody might be more attractive fiscally.

But is the risk worth the benefit? Not when we are gambling with Juneau’s sole year round drinking water supply, much of which flows through the mine.

When the first AJ Mine operated from 1917-1944, the mining method created huge glory holes that collapsed the surface so rainwater flowed into the mine and caused flooding. Drain holes were drilled to get rid of excess water. That water drains into Gold Creek upstream of the city wells in Last Chance Basin. As long as there is no activity in the mine, the water runs fairly clean. But when Echo Bay received an incomplete permit to mine in 1993, the company started vigorous exploratory drilling. Miners stirred up old muck, spilled oil and hydraulic fluid, and — according to FBI interviews with miners — discharged pollutants via drain holes to the creek at night when no one could see or would be testing the water.

Then one night in March, 1994, the “creek turned white and there’s lots of activity at the mine” in Last Chance Basin, according to a witness. The next day 300 dead fish were discovered in heap of shiny silver bodies under the clear creek water at the base of the road bridge. They died downstream from the mine drainage tunnel and the drinking water wells. Suddenly everyone was concerned about activities inside the mine.

The state and federal governments initiated investigations. Nine months later the state fined Echo Bay $250,000 for polluting.

But the FBI continued its investigation, learning more. The FBI recommended criminal prosecution. The details are in documents received through Freedom of Information Act requests. They are on the city’s web site. The federal attorney declined to prosecute based on the penalty Echo Bay already paid to the state. The FBI rebutted with more details that the company knowingly committed environmental crimes. Four months later Echo Bay cancelled plans to reopen the AJ Mine due to inadequate ore supply. The mine was cleaned up and closed.

There’s much more to this story.

Now we are reexamining the question of allowing mining to impact our drinking water supply and community. During cold months, the mine provides an essential volume of water to the city’s wells. Salmon Creek reservoir is an inadequate backup and is often unusable. It has provided no water since November.

This is the crux of the issue: we have no viable backup water source if the mine pollutes or takes the water to use in its mining and milling operations.

Among other conditions, I recommend the identification, development, activation and testing of an alternate drinking water system capable of supplying the entire borough before a mining company is allowed to begin exploring the AJ Mine.

We cannot afford to give away our most precious asset — drinking water — to gain a small profit from a marginal mine in downtown Juneau.

If this is important to you, please speak up at the public hearing on Thursday at 5pm in city assembly chambers.

To learn more about the FBI’s discoveries and other background information, go to www.juneau.org and search the AJ Mine link.

• Laurie Ferguson Craig served as issues coordinator for citizens’ group Alaskans for Juneau during the 1990s evaluation of Echo Bay Mines’ proposal to reopen the AJ Mine. She also worked with her family at their gold, silver and turquoise mines in Alaska and Nevada.

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