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AJ Mine reopening an appealing possibility

Posted: November 13, 2011 - 1:06am

Last Thursday Rorie Watt, engineering director for the City and Borough of Juneau, gave an informative and truly encouraging presentation to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce. While I have followed from a distance the deliberations of the City Assembly and the work of the AJ Mine Advisory Committee, I wasn’t previously aware of significant choices in the sort of mine that is under consideration and may come to pass that make this project appealing and likely to happen.

The city shares ownership of the AJ Mine with AJT Mining Properties (also owner of Alaska Electric Light & Power). The background of possibly re-opening the AJ — and turning this enormous public asset from a potential source of great wealth into reality — is replete with divisiveness and conflict. In the late 1980s some people were beyond adamant in opposition to Echo Bay Mining Company’s proposal for a very large-scale gold extraction operation near downtown. The daily extraction figure then was around 20,000 tons of ore, with no particularly creative plan for tailings disposal. Average downtown residents rightly questioned what a re-opened gold mine would do to their daily lives in terms of noise and pollution.

While there is no private partner yet working with the city in pursuit of a mine, the sort of mine envisioned by our current elected leaders would produce only 3,500 tons per day, along the lines of what is extracted at the Greens Creek and Kensington Mines. This smaller scale of operation is a giant qualitative difference from what the community looked at the last time around, and it ought to engender much less resistance. The price of gold is so vastly much higher that there is no economic barrier to producing a lot less gold (and thus tailings). The estimated value of recoverable gold is well over a billion dollars.

If the AJ is re-opened there will be other improvements, from having all the mill operations underground, accessed from a small entrance near the rock dump, to disposal of all tailings in the vast network of empty tunnels from operations in the early part of the 20th century. While the impacts of a mine on our housing supply and transportation system will need to be addressed, clearly we can meet those tests. Technological advances in the past 70 years mean we can have a mine near downtown and not diminish our quality of life.

Given the crucial and extensive benefits yielded by both of our current mines within the city boundaries it only makes sense to consider the possibility of adding a third operation of similar size. This would be true even if the city didn’t have a direct ownership interest in the gold to be mined, but the additional fact militates in favor of a duly diligent investigation of the pros and cons of mining again at the AJ. That is precisely what is underway at the City Engineering Department, with a report due out in four discrete parts early next year.

The other big logistical challenge (of which the community has long been aware) is our reliance on Gold Creek as a primary water source. The drainage system of the underground labyrinth of historical AJ tunnels poses a potential threat to Gold Creek. Given Gold Creek’s location, from the upstream reaches near these historical sources of contaminants down through some of the most heavily used recreational trails in our town, it is just not a great primary source of water. The city is thus wisely continuing to look at how else we might provide alternatives for water, and the Capital City will be better off as a result.

Important public policy decisions like those surrounding the AJ Mine require a sound cost benefit analysis, and this is what we can look forward to once city staff have reported back about what it will take to realize the AJ’s possibilities. Although there have recently been some encouraging statistics on Juneau’s economy and population, they hardly represent growth of the sort needed to maintain Southeast’s share of political power in the state Legislature. Juneau no longer has the numbers to merit two full state House Districts, and our regional representation in the state Senate continues to diminish.

While most Juneau residents neither envision nor desire a boom in Southeast like that which has utterly altered the Mat-Su Borough in the past 20 years, we probably ought to try for some modest growth when safe and promising opportunities present themselves. The AJ Mine is just such an opportunity, and we can all eagerly await more details about where we may get more drinking water, and how we can build an underground world-class gold mine that may someday provide hundreds of millions of dollars for Juneau and those lucky enough to live here.

• Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.

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