Take lesson from village corporations

Posted: Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Empire editorial in Sunday's paper on the subject of local reaction to Pebble Mine opponents misses the mark. The editorial suggests that the tough tone taken in a Klukwan-Goldbelt-Kake Tribal press release issued in response to Southeast Alaska Conservation Council-sponsored events last week is somehow too intense or inflammatory. The editorial ignores the fact that the village corporations were deeply offended and wanted to make sure the world knew it. I agree with the tenor of the press release and hope it provokes some re-thinking in western Alaska.

I attended a meeting last week that SEACC arranged for Bobby Andrew of Dillingham. Let me tell you what happened. Andrew and a Juneau-based SEACC staffer met with me and another Juneau businessperson. They were polite. They said, "We are not here to change your minds about the Kensington (Mine)," and, "We are not here to fight."

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Then they punched us in the nose.

They said that the Kensington, if it continues as permitted, will set a precedent that will first make the Pebble Mine possible, and that Pebble will then destroy the society and subsistence resources in the Bristol Bay area. The SEACC representative went on to say that the modern mining industry was no better than its century-old forebears in environmental matters. None of this is true and they were not interested in our views on the matter, nor in evidence we might supply. Mr. Andrew declined any opportunity to meet with Kensington staff.

"Not here to fight"? What do you call it when someone comes to your office, insults your neighbors, lies to your face and seeks to make you feel bad about supporting a venture that has been part of your community for many years? I was glad to see our village corporations declare their indignation, and I believe the region and its institutions should stand with them.

For those that care, I will try to clarify the legal issue. SEACC has said it prefers the "dry-stack" tailings disposal method that would put tails into about 150 acres of wetlands above Comet Beach. Those wetlands are "waters of the United States" and are legally no different from lower Slate Lake, the planned destination for Kensington tailings. For years, mines have been able to store tailings in lakes they build themselves with dams. The difference here is that the Kensington approach modifies an existing lake rather than building a whole new one, or some other wetland-related method. That difference, an existing lake versus a man-made lake, is the root of SEACC's lawsuit.

If the Kensington approach does provide a new option to Pebble, so what? That does not mean athat Pebble can somehow go ahead and cause environmental ruin. Pebble will still have to meet water quality standards and many other rules. The Empire missed this entirely. The editorial bought the whole package from Mr. Andrew and SEACC, and assumes that Pebble is automatically bad and that Kensington would thus trigger a disaster.

I don't know anything about the Pebble project except that it is very early in the design and environmental process. There will be hundreds of issues to address and the same bureaucracy that held Kensington's feet to the fire will do the same to Pebble. Bristol Bay area leaders should be engaged in the permitting and design process, and, as far as I can tell, they are. Such engagement should be to assure fair evaluation, environmental safety and positive outcomes - not to venture into somebody else's backyard with foul intent and deception.

Let me be as clear as I can about this. Our community, tribal and otherwise, was punched in the nose last week. The sting was compounded by the front-page news story that devoted 90 percent of its words to publicizing SEACC's view of things. Seeing the lopsidedness of this, the village corporations didn't punch back, but they did say, "You have offended us," and brought illumination to SEACC's misbehavior. They stood up for themselves and for our community, and all the newspaper can say is, "Now boys, just cool it." Talk about paternalism!

Bravo to our village corporations. Let us all take a lesson from their spirited defense of community, especially the Empire.

• Murray R. Walsh is a Juneau-based development consultant.

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