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How long-term is 'forever'

Posted: June 11, 2012 - 11:00pm

The Greens Creek Hecla mine on Admiralty Island is at a critical juncture in its development with the U.S. Forest Service which soon will make a decision to permit the deposit of mine tailings for the next 30 to 50 years, though the mine has a right to operate through the year 2095. This is a critical decision that entails an acid generating tailings dump that discharges copper, cadmium, mercury, lead, and cyanide — all highly toxic. The Forest Service acknowledges that the tailings dump and its water discharge into Hawk Inlet will have to be monitored and treated hundreds of years and possibly forever. That “forever” puts this decision in a truly long-term perspective that deserves serious log-term planning for operation and reclamation.

This decision deserves the best scientific information and design, as well as contingency plans if things go wrong, or the unexpected happens, again.

Friends of Admiralty Island has reviewed and commented on the recent Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) regarding this proposed expansion of tailings. Although the focus of our group is protecting the unique values of Admiralty Island, we fully recognize the right of the mine to exist and the critically important role it plays in the economy of Juneau and the region.

As many people are aware, the mining claims at Greens Creek pre-date the National Monument Wilderness status of the land surrounding the mine. Thus, the current footprint of the mine is wholly contained on non-wilderness lands. Hecla is seeking approval from the Forest Service to expand its mine tailings dump further into the National Monument, and bury more than 4,000 feet of salmon habitat in Tributary Creek (Alt. B). In fact, the alternative tailings site just outside the Monument boundary (C and D) call for the destruction of 1,078 feet of Flower Creek salmon habitat. This salmon habitat will be lost forever, despite claims that it can be recreated when mining has ended.

The DEIS has numerous shortcomings: It appears to have neglected several constraints for mining on National Monuments lands which Congress imposed in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act; the permanent loss of anadromous and resident fish habitat is essentially written off through a mitigation plan with questionable benefits; despite approval by EPA and DEC at the Pogo Mine, the DEIS failed to consider a demonstrated treatment alternative to increasing toxic discharges in a mixing zone in Hawk Inlet. The cultural values of Hawk Inlet are cursory, at best. We have asked that a supplement to the DEIS be prepared to correct these deficiencies to facilitate an informed response by the public and other agencies.

Our group is very concerned about these issues but also about the fact that the impacts of this mine will be a reality for local residents and the environment far beyond the life span of anyone reading this letter today. We would like to see a plan for expansion that works for the communities of Angoon, Hoonah and Juneau, Hecla Greens Creek mine and the Monument. Unfortunately the DEIS for the project fails in meeting this goal.

• Metcalf is president of the Friends of Admiralty Island Board of Directors and wrote this column on behalf of the board. The group was formed in 1997 to promote the protection of and advocate for educational and scientific research of Admiralty Island.

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