My Turn: Mine's improvements are to its bottom line

Posted: Friday, February 04, 2005

In his recent My Turn guest column (Dec. 28), Steve Borell generously gave Juneau conservation groups a "portion of the credit" for environmental improvements to the design of the Kensington gold mine. It has been a century-long struggle on the part of concerned citizens, polluted communities, and the occasional responsible mining company to reform the mining industry's legacy of toxic waste, contaminated water and fouled air. It is a testament to the heroes of that long struggle that Americans now demand that the mining industry operate far more responsibly than it has in the past. It is also due to those heroes that there are laws to ensure that Kensington gold mine's impact on our community and our clean air and water, although still unacceptably great, will be less than if the mine had been built 30 or 40 years ago.

That said, Mr. Borell's claim that the mine is "significantly improved both environmentally and economically" requires clarification.

Apparently, when he made that statement Mr. Borell was unaware of the contrary conclusions reached by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Both agencies are cooperating with the Forest Service in this planning process and both agencies have objected to Coeur's latest mine proposal to build the mine in Berners Bay.

The Environmental Protection Agency stated that Coeur's latest plan will cause greater damage to our waters and sea life than the corporation's previously approved plan, a plan that entirely avoided Berners Bay. Biologists at the National Marine Fisheries Service expressed concerns that the industrial ports and marine traffic in the bay will harm fisheries and marine life. When NMFS suggested several protective measures, such as restricting mine-related boat traffic in the spring, Coeur objected strenuously. It is not the environment that is Coeur's concern here, but its bottom line.

Even the Forest Service, when it approved Coeur's new plan, did not claim that the plan represented an environmental improvement over the old plan. Thus, when Mr. Borell and others say that the new plan is an environmental improvement over the old, it is best to keep in mind that the only ones making this claim are Coeur and its supporters.

When Mr. Borell claims that the new design is significantly improved economically, he does not mean that it will provide a greater economic benefit to Juneau, just to the company. In large part, this new plan saves Coeur money due to the fact that, instead of finding a responsible means of disposing of its mining wastes, it will dump them in a lake. To do this "legally" requires an unlawful interpretation of the Clean Water Act - legislation that has protected our drinking water and our waterways for more than a generation. If one mining company can manipulate the Clean Water Act to meet the needs of its bottom line, others will as well, ultimately eroding the Act's effectiveness in protecting the public's health and welfare.

The Kensington Mine was not redesigned to reduce the environmental damage it will cause, but to make it cheaper to operate and to increase corporate profits. We, the people of Juneau, must remember that we will be living with the impacts of this mine long after Coeur has left. We must also remember that Coeur has a history of polluting. It contributed to generating the largest Superfund site in the country. It is so poorly managed that it lost money in each of the past five years and consistently performs below the industry average. Coeur has yet to offer any reasons, aside from the pockets of its shareholders, why we should accept a mine in Berners Bay. As it stands now, Coeur's new plan will only cost Juneau one of our local treasures.

• Russell Heath is executive director of Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

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