My Turn: Mining companies seek meaningless reviews

Posted: Sunday, April 20, 2003

Two multinational mining corporations are asking the people of Juneau to exempt their facilities from the city's mining ordinance. We should reject their attempts to undermine the existing ordinance that examines mining operations fairly and applies careful scrutiny to offset potential negative impacts.

The current city mining ordinance provides the opportunity for Juneau citizens to be involved with decisions on mining projects that affect our natural resources and, especially, our local public services.

Ironically, one of the companies pushing for reduced scrutiny, Coeur d'Alene Mines, knows its Kensington Mine tailings killed 95 percent of the organisms in their own scientific test performed in 2000. ("Results of 42-Day Hyalella Azteca Habitability Tests with Tailing Sample from Dawson Metallurgical Laboratories, Utah and Lake Sediment Samples from Lower Slate Lake, Alaska, Samples Received June 9-14, 2000," page 8: "Percentage survival of Hyalella exposed to the tailings sample was 5 plus/minus 8 percent.") The habitability test was conducted to show whether the tailings could be dumped safely into Slate Lakes, which drain into Berners Bay. The dead organisms represent the basic life forms that fish eat.

It would be a grave mistake to eliminate mining ordinance analysis for this mine and any others within the borough. The present mining ordinance was developed in 1989 to augment inadequate state and federal oversight. It was crafted through a lengthy collaborative process involving many people, including industry representatives and citizen stakeholders. More importantly, the current ordinance exists to give Juneauites the opportunity to determine the best ways to prepare for and mitigate mining project impacts, particularly those affecting our schools, housing, police and fire protection, the hospital and social services. We would lose this crucial ability under the proposed amendment scheduled for public hearing on Tuesday, April 22 before the Planning Commission.

The existing city ordinance offers valuable local checks and balances to understand and possibly prevent the types of adverse impacts other communities have experienced, such as toxic mine wastes, devastated habitat, human health problems, and economically shattered towns.

Taxpayers have been forced to clean up corporate disasters with public funds in other places. Kensington and Greens Creek owners want us to abandon mining ordinance review for any mine not connected to the road system. The companies are promoting an amendment that would weaken city review of their operations to the kind of cursory examination a convenience store or a residential day care center would receive. If the proposed revisions are passed, even development of a small subdivision would have greater scrutiny by the city than a 4,000 ton-per-day mining facility that discharges toxic waste.

The present ordinance has not hampered mining. Kensington holds a valid city mining permit the company could activate at any time. If the company wanted to provide jobs, it could do so now. Instead it wants to change the rules to make it easier to operate with less public accountability.

A 1996 landmark ruling by the Alaska Supreme Court on the city mining ordinance reinforced its value to our community. It clarified the need to get complete information before approving a mine permit. The city failed to do so in the 1990s under pressure to approve mining permits hastily. The court threw out the city's A-J mine permit because it had been piecemealed and cumulative effects might not be sufficiently analyzed. The legal decision concluded with these words:

"If allowed to use such phasing in response to defects in mining applications, the [Planning] Commission could grant approval to any permit application no matter how deficient it is, making the Juneau code virtually meaningless and Commission decisions effectively unreviewable."

That is precisely what the mining companies desire now - meaningless review. The existing ordinance is solid and comprehensive. It should not be gutted to expedite corporate interests at the expense of public interests.

I urge interested citizens to contact Assembly members and the Planning Commission and tell them to retain the mining ordinance in its present and effective form. Speak up for Juneau's people, clean water and healthy fish. Let's not make it easier for a mining company to kill 95 percent of the organisms exposed to its tailings. Comments can be submitted to the city clerk at

Laurie Ferguson Craig is a former miner and former issues coordinator for the citizens group Alaskans for Juneau, which was closely involved in permit reviews for the Kensington and A-J mines in the 1990s.

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