My turn: Biological richness of Berners Bay more valuable than gold

Posted: Friday, April 29, 2005

I'm not against mining. Everything our society does depends on metal or mineral extraction. However, 80 percent of all gold is used for jewelry, and that is not a compelling reason to place a gold mine in a biological gem. There are hundreds of gold mines, but only one wild Berners Bay.

The richness of Berners Bay derives from the shoreline and near shore shallows, the habitats most vulnerable to destruction from docks, breakwaters, dust, runoff, and petroleum spills. Each spring spawning herring and smelt, and outmigrating salmon fry and smolts, collectively draw thousands upon thousands of seabirds, shorebirds, eagles, whales, porpoises, seals and sea lions from hundreds of miles away. The bay is a wild, productive treasure, not just another place for a non-Alaska corporation to devastate for a nonessential metal.

If the use of this estuary for something as habitat-destructive as industrial docks and mining is allowed, what sort of project would ever be denied there? Big docks beget petroleum spills and sewage, and nothing says "sayonara" to marine organisms like diesel.

The gold mine is not the only threat to Berners Bay, just the biggest. Between mining, logging and roads, the flanks of Berners Bay will eventually be naked enough to make the swimsuit issue of Pit Miner's Gazette.

The mining industry has a lousy track record of environmental stewardship. No matter what their spin is, the bottom line is to conduct activities to maximize profits to company coffers and shareholders. They won't be around to live with the consequences. Remember the last mining company that wanted to extract gold from the old AJ deposits behind Juneau? Its trumpeted motto was, "Committed to Juneau's Future," and it is long, long gone.

Look at northern Idaho and western Montana to see the lingering downstream impacts from gold mining. In the 200-mile-long Clark Fork River drainage, the runoffs from mining a hundred years ago are still poisoning the watershed.

The downstream impacts from gold mining are as forever as diamonds. The EPA has concerns about the tailings degrading the water in Slate Lake. The inexorable march of rainwater to the ocean will move contaminated water from the development site to the estuary, and the process of slowly turning Berners Bay from a unique biological gem to just another ruined habitat will go on, bit by bit.

Couer Alaska may be able to post bonds or show it is financially able to clean up spills and restore some habitats, but when ore production starts decreasing, big mining companies typically sell their interest to small companies without the financial capability to repair habitat damage. The public is left holding the bag.

Locally, Auke Nu Cove was once a little jewel itself, and now is a stone's throw from several busy industrial docks. The once large herring population that wintered in Auke Bay, that spawned all the way from Auke Bay to Berners Bay as recently as 25 years ago, and that summered on the west side of Douglas and Shelter Islands, is now just a remnant. The proposed Cascade Point transfer facility in Berners Bay would be placed directly on the spawning habitat of that remnant. If this remnant disappears, you can kiss your summer king salmon fishing and whale watching good-bye, as this is the stock of herring that is now spread in small schools from Youngs Bay to North Pass all summer.

If there has to be a mine, put the dock in Lynn Canal, not in the one-of-a-kind estuary. Don't use Slate Lake as a dump site for tailings. Minimize the impact to the estuary by running the supply boats from existing docks in Auke Bay. The recreational and wildlife values of Berners Bay are too important to be trumped by the on-the-cheap desires of one company from one industry that will be around only for a short time and then, as mining companies are wont to do, either move on to plunder another place, or disappear in a blaze of bankruptcy.

• Auke Bay resident Larry Edfelt is a retired fisheries biologist and a past member of the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

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