Mining proposals draw split opinions

Hearing draws out strong views about whether city should ease ordinance

Posted: Sunday, April 06, 2003

Proposals to ease the city's mine permitting rules drew strong opinions Saturday about environmental safeguards, Southeast Alaska's economy and local control.

The Juneau Assembly's Lands Committee is considering changes to a city law to make it easier to open and operate a mine in rural parts of Juneau. About 30 people attended a two-hour public hearing about the issue Saturday morning, and the Lands Committee may take action at a meeting Monday, Chairman Randy Wanamaker said.

Mining companies and their supporters argue the changes are needed because the city's existing regulations duplicate state and federal environmental reviews at great expense. Others said the rules are in place for a reason.

The existing mining ordinance calls on the city to review a large mine's socio-economic impacts and potential effects on air and water quality, safety and neighborhoods.

Douglas Mertz, a local attorney who was critical of plans to reopen the Kensington mine north of Juneau in the 1990s, said the city's mining ordinance was drafted by two bipartisan panels that spent weeks in open debate. The existing rules work, he said.

"I cannot believe you're even considering doing this," he told the committee. "You're proposing to open up some of the deepest wounds we've seen in this community."

Federal and state environmental analyses can be inadequate because of financing, structure and political leanings, Mertz said. City staff members were able to bring up issues that other agencies didn't during permitting for the Alaska-Juneau gold mine near downtown Juneau and the Kensington mine, he said.

"I don't think you can say that the state and federal governments will do a better job," he said.

Neil MacKinnon, who served on a committee that developed the city's first mining regulations in the 1980s, said participants discussed creating different classifications for rural and urban mines at the time, but ultimately didn't separate them.

"There was no consensus on the mining ordinance and I was on the group that adopted it," he said. "The Assembly now has a chance to fix it and I encourage you to do so."

The proposed changes come as the Kennecott Greens Creek mine is working to expand its tailings facility on Admiralty Island and Coeur Alaska tries to reopen the Kensington mine north of Berners Bay. Both projects would be subject to city permitting.

Representatives from both companies spoke in favor of changes at Saturday's hearing. Rick Richens, vice president of Coeur Alaska, said his company spent $2 million on two previous city permit reviews.

"Coeur is not aware of any other municipalities that regulate to this degree," he said.

Margo Waring, who was involved with the development of the current mining ordinance, said the new proposals meet "all the definitions of special interest legislation." The existing rules give Juneau a chance to see that a mine's effects aren't borne by local residents, Warning said.

"They give us the ability to step in when needed," she said. "Think of it as insurance."

Others urged the committee to support the changes because of mining's potential role in Juneau's economy. Coastal Helicopters owner Jim Wilson said over-regulation is driving mining companies away.

"We used to have 10 mining companies come to Juneau every year doing exploration," he said. "They've stopped coming. I urge you to support this amendment and try to get business going in this part of Alaska."

The Lands Committee will meet at 5 p.m. Monday in Assembly chambers to review two draft ordinances amending the city's mining law.

One proposal would allow the city's Community Development Department director to decide a rural mine is an "allowable use" and isn't subject to a separate city permit review. The Juneau Planning Commission could impose conditions related to traffic, lighting, safety, noise, dust, visual impacts, surface subsidence, avalanches, landslides and erosion if the items aren't addressed by federal or state environmental reviews.

The other proposal would allow the Community Development Department director to give "summary approval" to a change in an existing rural mine's operations.

If approved by the Lands Committee, the proposals will be sent to the Juneau Planning Commission and full Assembly for more discussion.

Joanna Markell can be reached at joannam@juneauempire.com.



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