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Scratching for gold

Posted: May 3, 2011 - 8:56pm

After 14 years of relative silence, gold is once again scratching at the collective conscience of our community. At $1,500 an ounce, it’s hard to imagine why Echo Bay didn’t continue working to reopen the AJ mine. Of course, their crystal ball wasn’t clear enough to have speculated that the value of gold would quadruple between then and now. If they knew, how much more would they have been willing to invest to protect Juneau’s water supply and address other community concerns?

It’s a moot question because Echo Bay left in search of more golden mines. And much to the dismay of the concerned citizens who opposed their plans, they’re having to debate the issues all over again. But like the gold hiding in the seams below the mountains, the questions were never gone. They remained waiting to stir up controversy in the same fashion as the capital move, the road to Haines and ANWR.

Ages ago, any determined prospector who dreamed of finding gold only had to dig a shallow mine shaft or sift through the sediments flowing in creeks. But now the easy gold is gone. Just as giant rigs are needed to recover oil from thousands of feet below the ground, today’s upfront capital costs ensures the only real miners will be big business ventures.

Who are these companies? The two working local mines both have corporate headquarters in Idaho. Helca, who has been in the mining business since 1891, owns the rights to the silver and gold at Greens Creek. While it’s currently their most productive property, it may be played out within 10 years.

Coeur Alaska just began mining at Kensington. They’re a subsidiary of Coeur d’Alene Mines, a company that presently holds rights in other mines with projected resources valued at ten times that of Kensington. Last year they signed a contract to sell the gold from Kensington to China’s largest gold producer.

The point is these aren’t local businesses and they wouldn’t have any interest in our community if it weren’t for the precious metals they’re seeking. When their operations end, they’ll move on to other profitable mines, taking the big money they earned here with them. The same will be true of any business venture that’s permitted to reopen the AJ. So it’s up to us to define the conditions which we’ll allow anyone into it.

What if the CEO of the company interested in mining the AJ had to live in downtown Juneau? Wouldn’t they then have a personal stake in the quality of water in Gold Creek? Such a hypothetical scenario is clearly unrealistic. But why would it be wrong to expect a big business mining in our backyard to first develop a new water supply for the town? Wouldn’t that provide jobs too?

Protecting Gold Creek has to be our highest priority. As opponents to the mine have already argued, permits guarantee nothing. The people who comfortably lived in Prince William Sound, on the Louisiana coast and near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan learned this the hard way.

Sure, mining the AJ puts us at risk on a much smaller scale. But even trusted technologies fail. Buildings burn, bridges collapse and planes crash. Avalanches bring down power lines. Mining isn’t any different.

Is there something about gold that would tempt us to look the other way? It has teased the minds of men since at least the time that the Pharaohs ruled Egypt. In a way, maybe “we’re all of us prospectors up here” like Rosie told Tyler in the film Never Cry Wolf, “scratching for that one crack in the ground so we’ll never have to scratch again.”

In the real world though, no one in Juneau is going to strike it rich by scratching away at the rock in the AJ. Instead we should tame our imaginations and realize we can’t eat or drink the quarter ounce of gold that might be found in every ton of solid rock far below the surface. On the other hand, we should remember that clean, free flowing water has always been the most essential compound on Earth. And we’d be smart to keep it that way.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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