Empire editorial: Juneau's foundation built on the socio-economic benefits of mining

Posted: Sunday, May 18, 2003

Back in early March, the Assembly's Lands Committee proposed changes to the CBJ Large Mine Permit (LMP) ordinance that would insert a rural mine classification in the ordinance, remove redundancies with state and federal processes and eliminate city certification of state and federal standards.

The existing mining ordinance was created in the late 1980s to regulate "urban" mining, specifically in regard to the proposed re-opening of the AJ mine in downtown Juneau.

Over the past 2 1/2 months there has been ample opportunity for public testimony and debate on the pros and cons of changing the ordinance. On April 22, the Juneau Planning Commission unanimously forwarded an ordinance to the Juneau Assembly that would speed permitting by reducing local review of large rural mines in the Juneau area. Commissioner Dan Bruce said the proposal fits in with a Planning Commission goal to simplify the city's regulatory process.

Some give and take has taken place through the process, which involves the Planning Commission, the Lands Committee and the Assembly. The Assembly will soon vote on the final draft of the ordinance.

At last Monday's Assembly meeting, representatives from the Greens Creek Mining Co. and Coeur Alaska, Inc., the operator of the Kensington Gold Project, asked the Juneau Assembly to make an expedient decision on the proposed mining ordinance. If the Assembly adopts the ordinance, Greens Creek would not be required to go through the city's permitting process in order to expand its tailings facility.

The CBJ lands committee is considering revisions to the ordinance that would preserve the broad environmental protections provided through state and federal regulations but make the CBJ's permitting process more user friendly and easier to administer,

A key changes in the mining ordinance would make the distinction between allowable uses in rural and urban areas. Under this change, mining would be considered an allowable use in rural, non-roaded areas of the borough.

Another change would allow modifications to mining operations that already have weathered the comprehensive permitting process to take place under the oversight of the CBJ Community Development director. The director would offer summary judgments on changes such as the tailings facility expansion that Greens Creek is seeking. The life of the Greens Creek mine will be cut short if the tailings facility isn't expanded.

A small but passionate group of anti-mining folks are working hard to stop the expansion of the tailings facility and want to see the remote areas of Hawk Inlet and the Kensington project designated as "urban." These places are about as urban as downtown Anchorage is rural.

Mining opponents also want to retain the requirement that new large mines must foot the high cost of socio-economic impact studies. Back in the late 1980s, when the current ordinance was drafted, there may have been some logic to indoctrinating such a requirement. Recent history, however, has shown the social and economic impacts of mining on our community have been nothing but positive. Socio-economic studies in general are very arbitrary and open to broad interpretation.

Mining opponents during the earlier debate warned of all the social ills and economic costs that would follow if a large mine was allowed to operate in the borough. None of those claims proved to be founded.

In fact, in the last socio-economic studies funded by Coeur Alaska, both the CBJ and the Forest Service concluded the social and economic impact of the proposed mine would be positive.

Companies such as Greens Creek, Echo Bay and Coeur Alaska have contributed generously to Juneau's charities and tax base and local commerce, providing good jobs and diversifying its sometimes shaky economy. Additionally, the employees of the mining companies volunteer their time to community service, belong to churches and otherwise enrich the quality of life in our community.

In the long view, Juneau would not exist as we know it today if it were not for mining. In fact, a great deal of Juneau's urban development rests firmly on the tailings from Juneau's early mines.

Another oft-repeated socio-economic argument, that the "boom and bust" nature of mining is the biggest problem of all, simply doesn't make sense. Juneau is currently dealing with significant repercussions from the boom and bust cycle of big box stores. However, those large employers aren't required to do socio-economic studies, which raises the specter of risk to the CBJ that the current mining ordinance discriminates against mining companies.

Another economic benefit that won't show up on a study is that mining companies may well play a pivotal role in the affordability of our utility rates in the not too distant future. AEL&P's next big project is the Lake Dorothy hydroelectric generation facility. If the Lake Dorothy project moves forward, it will supply the supplemental power needed to meet Juneau's demand for years to come, while helping to keep utility rates low.

The project won't pencil out for AEL&P without another large customer such as Greens Creek or significant population growth. The latter is not likely to happen. If the light company can supply Greens Creek with power, the mining company will be able to replace its diesel-generated power with clean, efficient hydroelectric power saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. With the help of the Southeast Intertie and the line to Hawk Inlet, Hoonah also would be able to move away from expensive diesel generation.

Back in 1989 the mining ordinance was amended to add the socio-economic study requirement on a much faster track and with far less public input than the current proceedings to reverse this unneeded and outdated restriction.

In a memorandum submitted by the CBJ's longest tenured planning commissioner, Johan Dybdahl, he sums up the primary failings of the law thusly: "The Large Mine Permit ordinance as it currently exists is unwieldy, duplicative and far-reaching."

The proposed changes to the mining ordinance have been debated adequately by all sides and should move forward quickly.

Don Smith



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