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Alaska mining industry a gold nugget in state's economy

Posted: February 19, 2014 - 1:01am

Alaska marked a significant but little noticed development in 2013: production of gold topped 1 million ounces, a feat not achieved since the turn-of-the-century gold rush in 1906.

This milestone, along with an overall resurgence in Alaska’s mining industry, is great news for Alaskans because this industry provides thousands of some of the best-paying jobs of any home-grown industry in our state.

Mining also produces millions of tax dollars for state and local governments and payments to Alaska Native corporations.

Since many of Alaska’s mines are on federal lands or require federal permits, I’ve been successfully pushing agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Forest Service to green-light mining projects.

From the Greens Creek and Kensington mines in Southeast to Fairbanks’ Fort Knox to Red Dog in the Kotzebue region, Alaska’s mines are thriving and provide jobs in regions where few others are available.

Consider that mining in Alaska produces nearly 5,000 direct and another 9,500 indirect jobs, according to the latest complete numbers from 2012. These jobs pay an average wage of $100,000-plus, more than double the state average for all other sectors.

Much of Alaska’s mined ore and minerals are exported, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the state’s entire exports. Since 1981, $2.3 billion has been spent on mining exploration in Alaska, including $275 million in just 2012 alone, according to the Alaska Miners Association.

The history of Alaska’s territorial coming of age is directly tied to the mining industry, from the founding of Juneau and Fairbanks to Nome’s gold rush. Alaska’s history is rich with the famous and infamous associated with mining: Joe Juneau, Felix Pedro and Soapy Smith.

Success in Alaska’s mining industry today requires both cutting edge technology and persistence to cut through government red tape.

Outside of Juneau, the Kensington gold mine was subject to 20 years of costly legal wrangling until the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009 enabled the mine to open. Still, the EPA fought where and how to dispose of fill until Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Rep. Don Young and I intervened with then-EPA administrator Lisa Jackson to convince her to grant the permits.

Today Kensington is the second largest private employer in Southeast Alaska and the largest property tax payer in Juneau.

Not far from Kensington in Southeast is the Greens Creek silver, zinc and gold mine. To help the mine expand after reinstatement of the so-called roadless rule in the Tongass National Forest, I fought to continue exploration permits in roadless areas and pushed the EPA and Forest Service to approve a new tailings expansion.

Today Greens Creek¸ among the world’s top 10 silver producers, is Juneau’s largest private sector employer.

Red Dog outside Kotzebue is one of the world’s largest zinc mines and the largest taxpayer in the Northwest Arctic Borough. After completing excavation of the original deposit, the mine needed an EPA Environmental Impact Statement to expand.

In 2010, we successfully pressed the EPA to do the right thing to allow for mine expansion. Last month, I visited Red Dog to greet some of the hundreds of local residents who enjoy good-paying jobs at the mine.

I’ve successfully pushed federal agencies to permit or expand mining projects including Fort Knox near Fairbanks, Donlin Gold Mine in Southwest, Bokan Mountain rare earths mine on Southeast’s Prince of Wales Island, Niblack copper mine near Ketchikan and Healy’s Usibelli Coal Mine.

The only Alaska mine I oppose is the Pebble Mine at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. After years of scientific study, a comprehensive watershed assessment last month found the mine would threaten the largest, most lucrative salmon run in the world.

Bristol Bay produces half the world’s red salmon and supports thousands of fishing jobs and a way of life for thousands of Alaskans. Like the late Sen. Ted Stevens and Gov. Jay Hammond, I concluded Pebble is the wrong mine in the wrong place for Alaska.

By persuading federal regulators that Alaska mines can operate responsibly, I know Alaska’s mining industry will continue as a valuable gold nugget in our state’s economy.

• Mark Begich is a Democratic U.S. senator representing Alaska.

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