Several weeks ago the U.S. Forest Service came to Angoon to hold a subsistence hearing on Greens Creek Mine’s proposed tailings expansion, and it’s the first opportunity I’ve had as elected mayor to think seriously about the effects the mine is having on my home. My greatest frustration at that meeting was to find that the Forest Service’s mind was already made up: The Forest Service was not going to reconsider its approval of the tailings expansion, no matter what concerns we expressed,
We were meeting for nothing.
I grew up with the mindset that Admiralty was Angoon’s land. Traditionally, it was a cultural understanding from community to community that most of Admiralty Island, from point Gardner to Point Retreat, belonged to Angoon. Hoonah recognized this. Kake recognized this. Sitka and Auke clans, as well.
Since time immemorial, this land has been ours. It was understood that fish migrated through Icy Strait, hit the Hawk Inlet shore, and went north and south. As a result, Hawk Inlet has always been an important location for Angoon. We’ve fished there — salmon, halibut, herring, seal. And when we fished there we felt the freedom to come ashore and hunt other land animals. Hoonah, Kake and Sitka felt the same way about their land. But we don’t feel that anymore. Greens Creek has made it known we are no longer free to come ashore in Hawk Inlet. Our elders were raised in Hawk Inlet, but now they have no freedom to return.
We don’t know enough about the chemicals coming from Greens Creek to feel safe eating fish out of Hawk Inlet, and we also don’t know what effects these chemicals are having on the fish and wildlife that migrate through Hawk Inlet. Scientists say that the mine is releasing chemicals like lead, mercury, zinc, copper and cadmium that have harmful effects on the environment and human health. These are things we do not have much experience with, but when someone knowledgeable about these issues says we have to pay attention, we take them seriously. So although I am not an expert on the effects mining can have, I am greatly concerned about the impacts the mine is having in our community. As the mayor of Angoon, I don’t want to be guilty of having done nothing to alert my people and our neighbors.
In these ways, Angoon has incurred the costs of Greens Creek Mine, but it’s Juneau that’s received the benefits. When the mine first got started, five representatives from Greens Creek came to Angoon. We told them we had people that wanted to work, and we also offered to help with transporting employees to the mine. We informed them of our efforts to develop hydropower in Thayer Lake, and our desire to work together to make power for a mine in a way that would benefit both of us.
But those words seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
All of those benefits went to Juneau. Juneau gets the property taxes. Juneau residents get the jobs, and Juneau’s economy benefits from being the main port for the mine.
Meanwhile, Angoon has only received a few thousand dollars each year in scholarships. While we are very grateful for the scholarships and they mean very much to the students who receive them, they are not enough to compensate Angoon for what it has lost.
More frustrating, Juneau has taken control of the mine, but has not taken responsibility for it.
Juneau annexed the peninsula that mine is on, but in the annexation process Angoon was ignored. We didn’t even know it was being annexed until it was already in place. The process of establishing a borough should have involved the only permanent community on Admiralty, but it didn’t.
Worse, Juneau has taken control, but ignores the mine’s environmental impacts. In 2003, Juneau amended its large mine ordinance to exempt Greens Creek from any borough oversight. But we are the ones to bear the brunt of no supervision.
As a community, we’ve always worked together to protect the health of our land. We’ve poured so many resources over the years into protecting Admiralty. Because of our work, Admiralty Island is still the jewel of the Tongass. We don’t oppose all mining, but if is done on Admiralty, it needs to be done in the safest way possible and in a way that takes Angoon into account.
• George is the mayor of Angoon.