Assembly may ease mine permit reviews

Posted: Sunday, March 09, 2003

Randy Wanamaker's vision of Juneau's future is one of economic diversity, with mining as a key player. It's part of the reason why he's pushing to streamline the city's mining permit process.

"Our economy really needs diversification, we have state budget cuts, we probably have state employee reductions coming and Juneau needs to have other opportunities," the Juneau Assembly member said. "These mining projects provide us with those opportunities. We can have the economic diversification without sacrificing any environmental quality."

Wanamaker, an environmental assessor, geologist and chairman of the Assembly's Lands Committee, has taken charge of an effort to revise the city's 19-page mining ordinance. He wants his colleagues to consider changing the local law to eliminate rules he considers "inefficient, inconsistent and redundant."

"Time is money to business and if they know they'll get a yes or no within a certain amount of time, they're willing to come and work in your community and invest money to see if the project is viable," he said.

The city's mining ordinance was adopted in 1986 and revised in 1989 with the goal of imposing "conditions for the protection of the environment, health, safety and general welfare of the city and borough of Juneau." It outlines permit process for large and small mines in Juneau, and calls on the city to review a mine's possible effects on air and water quality, hazardous and toxic material, safety and other items such as traffic, noise, dust, landslides and erosion.

Laurie Ferguson Craig, who watched the city review permits for Alaska-Juneau gold mine and the Kensington mine in the 1990s, said the ordinance provides well-drafted guidance for how a mining project should be constructed in Alaska. She was the issues coordinator for Alaskans for Juneau, a group that criticized plans for earlier mines, especially Echo Bay Alaska's attempts to reopen the historic A-J mine near downtown.

"What Juneau has in this mining ordinance is something few municipalities have and they should be very proud of it," she said. "It covers socioeconomic impacts, it covers impacts to water, it covers impacts to subsistence resources."

But Wanamaker, local mining companies and some others say the law duplicates federal and state reviews and is designed for mines in urban, not rural, areas of Juneau. With Coeur Alaska working to reopen the Kensington Mine near Berners Bay and Kennecott Greens Creek Mining Co. proposing to expand its tailings facility on Admiralty Island, some Assembly members say it's time for a change.

"It's a nightmare," Wanamaker said, referring the current process. "It's duplicative of all the state and federal requirements, it costs a lot of money and then there's no certainty when a decision can actually be made."

Rural or urban, local oversight shouldn't be scrapped, Ferguson Craig responded.

"It's even more important with current trend of existing administrations to make air and water quality less safe for the general public," she said.

Under a timeline presented last week, the Assembly's Lands Committee will consider a list of possible amendments to the mining ordinance at meetings this month. Proposals would create a rural mine classification, eliminate duplications of federal and state processes and drop city certification of state and federal standards. One proposal would allow the city to make a presumptive finding that a mine meets local requirements if it successfully completes state and federal reviews, unless the city's Community Development Department shows the federal and state processes are insufficient, Wanamaker said. Socioeconomic impact requirements, which are covered in federal reviews, would be amended or eliminated.

The changes will also be forwarded to the Juneau Planning Commission and the full Assembly. Wanamaker, who runs a consulting firm called Gateway Technologies, previously counted Coeur Alaska as a client. He hasn't had any mining contracts for the past couple of years, he said.

Representatives from Coeur Alaska and Greens Creek have given Assembly members separate suggestions for changes. Greens Creek General Manager Rich Heig told Assembly members last month that his company's operations are subject to scrutiny by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the state Department of Natural Resources. The city's ordinance duplicates federal and state requirements, he said.

"This could delay a vital and time-sensitive expansion," he said.

Greens Creek, Juneau's largest private employer, wasn't subject to city's mining regulations when it opened because it was outside of the borough. When the city later annexed the mine, it gave it a break from the local permit process since it already was operating. But the grandfather rights don't appear to extend to an expansion of the tailings facility, according to Heig.

Lance Miller, executive director of the Juneau Economic Development Council, said the current ordinance is geared to the Alaska-Juneau gold mine near downtown Juneau, not the more rural Greens Creek and Kensington projects. Miller was the chief geologist for the A-J project, which shut down after the ore body was deemed less valuable that expected, but he said he wasn't directly involved with city permitting at the time.

"The ordinance was really developed with the A-J in mind and things have changed, the industry has matured and certainly the city has also matured in its understanding of mineral development," he said.

Others disagree. Dana Owen, who represented Alaskans for Juneau in 1989 negotiations to revise the mining ordinance, said the city's regulations aren't oriented toward the A-J mine.

"Absolutely not. It's a completely bogus distinction," he said. "Regardless whether a mine is located on Admiralty Island or north of Berners Bay, there are still impacts to the city. The actual location of the mine is less important than the effects the mine has."

Owen said the ordinance gives local residents a chance to address local concerns.

"What we really wanted more than anything was an ordinance that allowed the public to see and review what the project was really going to be," he said.

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