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Berners group takes 'timeout'

Right of project opponents to attend meeting in dispute

Posted: Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is crying foul after the first meeting of the Berners Bay Working Group was shutdown Friday because of its presence.

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SEACC Executive Director Russell Heath said meeting facilitator Coeur Alaska is not in compliance with Alaska's Open Meetings Act after one of his staff members was told she was not welcome at the meeting of state and federal officials regarding the proposed transportation plan of Kensington Mine.

"It's very disturbing when they don't want to hold this meeting publicly," he said. "What are they trying to hide?"

Luke Russell, Coeur Alaska's vice president of environmental service, said the group took a "timeout" to look at the legal scope of the Open Meetings Act and because of a pending lawsuit against the project filed by the conservation group.

"SEAAC was not invited because of their status as a litigant against the project," Russell said.

He said a representative of the Nature Conservancy and a local fisherman are members of the working group. Nearly a dozen people were there for the meeting when it was postponed, Russell said.

"I just see it as a minor timeout to review how does the open meetings law apply and certainly how does it apply when you have an open litigant who is wanting to participate on the very subject that is being litigated in court," Russell said.

The working group was arranged by Coeur Alaska to discuss and monitor its transportation plan, which was a recommendation on a permit granted by the city regarding the construction of the Kensington Mine north of Berners Bay, Russell said. The group is made up of a number of state and federal agencies, including the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Department of Natural Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Heath said SEACC has a right to attend the meeting because Coeur Alaska is a private corporation working on public land and exploiting a public resource.

"The agencies don't have a greater right to be at those meetings than the public does," he said.

Quoting the Open Meetings Act, Heath said, "The people of the state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them."

Heath said the relationship between Coeur Alaska and SEACC soured after the conservation group filed a lawsuit in the fall of 2005 against the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which then withdrew the permits it had issued. The permits have since been reissued and SEACC has refiled its lawsuit.

Russell said the legal melee has slowed down the construction of the gold mine considerably.

"It's been a little difficult and not a regular construction year because of the litigation," he said.

Heath said SEACC's is concerned about protecting the "tremendous resources" of Berners Bay and Coeur Alaska's attempts to dump mine tailings in Lower Slate Lake, which he said would be a violation of the Clean Water Act.

"It's the public's right to ensure that they act responsibly," he said.

Russell said a date has not been set for a new meeting of the Berners Bay Working Group.

"We'll reconvene when it's appropriate to do so," he said.

• Eric Morrison can be reached at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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