My Turn: A novel proposal for the governor

Posted: Sunday, April 22, 2007

I'm proposing that Gov. Sarah Palin appoint Coeur Alaska to take over the former Fish and Game Habitat Division (now run by the Department of Natural Resources).

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Now you might think this would be the "fox guarding the henhouse," and you would be right. Nevertheless, hear me out.

Juneau's business community has gone on the record of supporting Coeur's Kensington Mine, including its controversial tailings proposal, which involves submerging tailings in Lower Slate Lake.

Now go back a few years to Kensington's former owner, Echo Bay Mines, and its attempt to submerge the tailings from the Alaska-Juneau Mine. This attempt involved keeping the tailings submerged behind a dam, flooding much of the Sheep Creek Valley. When that permit failed, Echo Bay tried to get those tailings deposited into Taku Inlet and Stephens Passage.

Both of these efforts failed miserably, yet along comes Coeur with another proposal for submerging mine tailings and how does Juneau respond? Not only do businesses support the project wholeheartedly, but the Army Corps of Engineers permits fall into place as well.

To what do we owe this about face? The crux of Coeur's proposal involves redefining its tailings as fill and an after-the-fact creation of an improved fishery once all the tailings have been deposited into Lower Slate Lake. The brilliance of this plan alone is enough to qualify Coeur to be the new habitat regulator for Alaska, despite the 9th Circuit Court's problems with the plan.

According to former Juneau Assembly Member Errol Champion's Feb. 6 letter, Kensington's tailings have the potential to create a viable and vibrant fishery in place of a mediocre one.

With this in mind, it seems there are a couple of other bodies of water that could benefit from tailings, as well. Auke Lake, for one, could solve its problem with those pesky water skiers by perking up its fishing. And just imagine the banks of the Mendenhall River being lined with anglers, similar to Anchorage's Ship Creek, engaged in combat fishing. I have no doubt that the permitting process with the Army Corps of Engineers would be a slam dunk.

Now the proof of the pudding will be in the eating of these fish. My proposal would allow the Department of Natural Resources to devote its full attention to figuring out what to do with an abundance of fish not fit for human consumption. This is, of course, once the mining industry is done messing with Alaska's mixing-zone laws.

A couple of suggestions for dealing with these inedible fish might be to use them as flower-garden fertilizer and cat food. The potential is gigantic if one takes into account the proposed Pebble Mine's risk to the Bristol Bay fishery.

The Bristol Bay fishery, of close to 20 million sockeye salmon per year, will be put at risk by any submerging of tailings in the watershed. This will make the need to look into alternate uses of fish imperative. Someone might want to get U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens cracking on the funding to make horticulturists and feline veterinarians out of nearly 4,000 Bristol Bay gillnetters.

I also want to applaud Coeur for publishing only the names of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council's board members, in the hope that they would wake up with a horse's head in their beds, thus encouraging SEACC to drop its lawsuit. Had the board member's addresses been included, the local horse population would have most certainly suffered.

Please remember, that while Coeur's shareholders will insist that they do nothing more than what is required of them by the permitting agencies, it is SEACC that is trying to ensure that Coeur does nothing less.

And all kidding aside, the only really offensive thing about this whole process is that mine tailings are even considered for any of Alaska's waterways.

• Bill Yankee is a Juneau resident and commercial salmon fisherman.

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