Coeur Alaska, an Idaho-based mining company recently promoted their new, environmentally friendlier Kensington gold mining project in the Empire. The half-page advertisement features a photograph of Lions Head Mountain and numerous benefits of the downsized project. While the photo's caption proclaims: "Smaller, Cleaner, Better," the supposed environmental benefits of Coeur's new plan deserve careful scrutiny.
Couer's advertisement is nothing more than a smokescreen that hides the bigger picture they don't want us to see. Behind their claims is a project that threatens the tremendous cultural, recreational and ecological values of Berners Bay, a special place treasured by the people of Juneau and elsewhere.
Coeur's old plan was to construct a mine on the Lynn Canal side of Lions Head Mountain. Financial problems and low gold prices forced the company to put their plans on hold while they searched for ways to cut costs.
One of the most costly and environmentally risky aspects of hardrock mining is waste disposal. Extracting a few ounces of gold from tons of rock produces huge amounts of waste, or tailings, which are typically dumped on land causing a variety of serious problems (e.g. acid mine waste at the Greens Creek Mine). The old plan called for dumping tailings on low-value forested wetlands. In their new plan, Coeur boasts a 43 percent reduction in wetland loss, the elimination of highly visible tailings piles and simplified site reclamation.
How'd they do it? Instead of dumping tailings on land, Coeur wants to dump mine waste into Slate Lake, a pristine lake on public land that flows into a salmon stream. Coeur's advertisement doesn't mention the lake. It's labeled "proposed tailings management facility" in the photo. Currently this "facility" is home to Dolly Varden char. Tailings would be pumped to the lake through a long pipe. Slate Lake can't hold all the waste, so Coeur wants to block the outlet with an earthen dam nearly 100 feet tall and 500 feet long. Thus, Coeur's new plan saves wetlands by constructing a huge dam on a public lake and filling it with mining waste. Coeur calls this simplified reclamation. The ad fails to mention simplification comes at the expense of eliminating a pristine lake.
Coeur has other interesting ways to downsize. The original plan kept all facilities confined to a small area on the west side of Lions Head Mountain. You may have noticed this site by the presence of buildings, waste-rock piles, roads and wastewater ponds visible from the ferry. As a means of improving the Lynn Canal viewshed, Coeur proposes moving facilities from this disturbed area and scattering them - and their individual impacts - throughout Berners Bay. The milling site would be near Johnson Creek, a tributary to the Berners River. About four miles from there (as the pipeline flows) would be the Slate Lake tailings management facility. Another two miles from there would be dock facilities at Slate Cove in Berners Bay. The new downsized plan seems to be getting larger, rather than smaller.
Another feature of the plan is the elimination of a work camp and helicopter transport of workers. Instead, workers would commute to the mine each day, departing for Slate Cove from a new marine transit facility constructed on the shores of Berners Bay at Cascade Point. This facility would include a breakwater, dock, parking lot and fuel storage. Every day jet boats will transport workers and supplies back and forth across Berners Bay. At Slate Cove, workers will board busses that will rumble along the Berners River to the mill site, 13 miles from Cascade Point. Coeur's new plan is anything but smaller, it's sprawling! The infrastructure, noise and pollution would devastate Berners Bay as we know it.
I know our community needs good paying jobs. But Coeur's new plan cuts corners to fill their own pockets while turning Berners Bay into an industrial site. It's time for Coeur to go back to the drawing board. This corporation can design a mine that provides good jobs and leaves Berners Bay unharmed - a mine that truly is smaller, cleaner and better. The citizens of Juneau deserve more than Coeur's advertising hype.
John Hudson, a Juneau resident, is a member of Friends of Berners Bay.