Earlier this year the City and Borough of Juneau tasked a group of Juneau residents with looking at the positive and negative attributes of the possibility of re-opening the AJ Mine, a vast assemblage of tunnels and other mining infrastructure that sits on top of a significant amount of gold-bearing hard rock substrate just next to downtown. The city directly owns much of this extremely valuable asset, and it is prudent and sensible for our elected leaders to encourage the community to consider what value the asset might yield to all as a source of jobs, positive economic activity, and funds. At the same time, the prospect of a large-scale hard rock mining operation in downtown Juneau is going to be met with justifiable scrutiny.
Scrutiny does not, however, mean saying no to something before it has even been fully investigated, let alone begun in earnest.
One of the only points of consensus in the AJ Mine Advisory Committee’s final report is that the integrity of Juneau’s principal drinking water source, Gold Creek flowing down through the Last Chance Basin, must be protected if the possible re-opening of the AJ is to be pursued. I couldn’t agree more, because a safe and secure supply of drinking water is essential to our lives here in Alaska’s Capital City. Our water comes from two sources, Gold Creek and also from the Salmon Creek watershed out near Bartlett Regional Hospital. Gold Creek yields a vastly more dependable supply of water than Salmon Creek, reliably throughout the year, while Salmon Creek is seasonally unusable due to turbidity that renders the water unpalatable, indeed not potable, at times.
It is a little amazing that Juneau hasn’t previously undertaken an investigation of alternative water sources separate and distinctly from the conversation about the AJ Mine. With our population of over 30,000 people and our status as the capital city, we simply can’t afford to take the chance that our water supply will be interrupted or even significantly compromised. Even without figuring out how safely to extract and sell the piles of gold that could be commercially mined from the AJ Mine, there are many ways Gold Creek is less than ideal as a watershed. This past summer there was a huge landslide at the end of the Perseverance Trail; over the past decade there have been regular rockslides and other geologic upheavals at many points along Last Chance Basin. Old buildings have slowly fallen into the upper reaches of the creek — who knows what will happen farther upstream as time goes by? Despite ordinances requiring dogs to be on leashes and other rules to protect Gold Creek, this is hardly a carefully secured area. In truth, there are plenty of potential threats to Gold Creek as a water supply.
We live in the middle of an extremely moist rainforest with lots of possible alternative water sources. It really can’t be too technologically or logistically formidable a task to devise options for not continuing to rely on current sources of water. Fortunately, the Assembly has directed city staff to address the matter. This doesn’t need to frustrate progress on possibly re-opening the AJ Mine. In truth, Juneau needs to improve its water infrastructure whether or not the AJ is to be re-opened. The former objective must not be allowed to become a point of false contention in the AJ debate.
Assembly debate has raised whether the money appropriated to further exploration of how best to address Juneau’s future water needs is too focused on the mining angle. I trust city staff to address the primary issue on its own merits, and to come back to the Assembly and the public with a report that lays out where we are in terms of water needs and how best to address them. Unfortunately, some may participate in the water-policy conversation whose real goal is preventing the AJ Mine from re-opening at any cost. Just as those who have used red herring arguments in opposition to the Lynn Canal Highway and the Kensington Mine over the years, their credibility is diminished.
We are extremely fortunate to live in a place where we have more options for securing clean, palatable water than we even know. I’m not a hydrologist, but I’m sure most of our country envy the panoply of water resources with which we are blessed. Let’s focus on this simple truth, and make progress on this vital issue. Other and separate debates about more divisive matters can occur discretely.
• Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.