Empire editorial: Mining is essential to Juneau's economy

Posted: Sunday, April 20, 2003

Juneau owes its very existence to the rich ore bodies discovered more than 100 years ago. In fact, a vast number of communities throughout the North American West were founded on the economies that grew out of mineral discoveries. Mining camps grew into towns as people from all over the world came to work the mines and seek opportunities spun off from mining activity.

As the mining towns grew, far-flung transportation arteries developed, drawing yet more people and opening up more of the country.

For a time in the early part of the last century, Juneau was home to the largest hard rock gold mine on earth.

Certainly, mining in North America has had a colorful and checkered past. Many communities rose quickly on the hopes of sustained wealth from hard rock ore production only to be abandoned when the mines played out. The boom and bust cycles of mining spawned generations of nomadic fortune seekers and entrepreneurs who became an important force in the culture and history of the American West.

Juneau, or more accurately, Treadwell saw its own sudden bust when the vast mine collapsed and filled with seawater.

Perhaps there was no era in the history of man as free and full of hope and opportunity as the heady time when the Old West was settled.

Only Alaska remains as a vestige of that era with its untapped opportunity still largely intact. The infrastructure that followed mining development in the Lower 48 never came to Alaska.

Unquestionably, early mining did have an ugly side. For most of the last century, there were little or no environmental restrictions or oversight and the scars that remain from the bad and irresponsible practices of mining companies long gone remain in many abandoned sites.

Mining practices in North America have changed dramatically for the better over the past 40 years as the role of environmental protection has become the overarching influence on the feasibility, placement, operation and profitability of every mining project.

Mines such as Greens Creek are required to submit detailed reclamation plans and post bonds to cover the cost of reclamation before they can open. A large portion of their investment must be devoted to waste treatment and air, noise and water quality.

Mining projects in Juneau must pass through one of the most stringent and involved permitting processes anywhere in the world. Environmental compliance must be met with regulations governed by the Forest Service, EPA, Fish and Wildlife Service, Corps of Engineers, Department of Environmental Conservation, Department of Natural Resources, Department of Fish and Game, and City and Borough of Juneau.

The process also involves the expertise of independent third party environmental consultants (selected by the participating agencies) and close collaboration with local environmental interest groups.

The city's mining ordinance currently is being reviewed to improve its effectiveness by removing duplicative, outdated, and unnecessarily costly regulations. Changes to the ordinance will recognize the distinction between rural and urban mines, and between new and existing mines.

Just how important is mining to Juneau's economy? The Juneau Economic Development Council's annual report contains an analysis of Juneau's top 25 employers. Out of the 25, only four are private-sector employers, and just one produces a tangible product - Greens Creek.

With 266 employees, Greens Creek is the area's largest private-sector employer. The company has established a high standard for environmental responsibility.

The Kensington Mine now under review would provide another 300 or 400 jobs during the construction phase and provide 225 permanent, high-wage jobs when the project is up and running. The annual payroll is estimated at $16 million with $1 million a year going into Juneau's tax base.

The biggest "bust" Juneau has seen in recent memory was a significant loss of government jobs in the late 1980s. Given the fiscal crisis on the state and federal level, there is no reason to believe that a bust in government employment won't happen again.

With 65 percent of Juneau's employment resting on government jobs, our community is in critical need of economic diversification. The timber and commercial fishing jobs that once contributed to diversification have dwindled to a fraction of the base they provided just two decades ago.

Great technological advances in environmental sciences and processes in the past decade have made many environmental regulations outdated and obsolete. Alaska's regulatory tangle has driven investment away.

Our governor along with legislators on both sides of the aisle are working to remove outdated, unnecessary and duplicative obstacles to the state's permitting process, without sacrificing environmental protection. The regulatory pendulum must swing if Alaska hopes to regain its stature as a welcoming place to do business.

Don Smith



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