My Turn: Money and power: The aphrodisiacs of politics

Posted: Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council asserted last Friday in a Juneau Empire column that they are doing the "right thing" about Kensington. However, what they are doing is politics, plain and simple. SEACC is in the business of politics, and if one digs down, the motivation one finds is money and power.

The recent Supreme Court case was illuminating. SEACC has argued (for a few years anyway) that Kensington wasn't "doing it right" because the standard method for dealing with leftover waste is to use a dry tailings facility. I found it interesting that the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other environmental groups argued in a court brief that the standard way to handle tailings in Alaska was tailings pond such as what's used at the Red Dog and Fort Knox mines. Either SEACC or the NRDC was wrong. It turns out, as the U.S. Supreme Court noted, that SEACC was wrong and dry tailings facilities are not the norm.

Why would SEACC make such a false statement? The answer: Politics, money and power.

Before the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, even erstwhile SEACC supporters were feeling embarrassed by the group's quasi-government actions by vetting and approving mining plans. SEACC is a private entity that gets money from private individuals and groups. Their argument isn't just to the courts, it is to the body politic and to potential contributors. But if individuals or interest groups can pay them money to share their power, that is no more than corruption.

The Kensington Mine now has approval to build a tailings facility at Slate Lake and treat the discharge before it goes into Berners Bay. NRDC and SEACC's co-plaintiff, the Sierra Club, admitted even before the Supreme Court ruled that the Kensington Mine could do this if they jumped through the right bureaucratic hoops. SEACC said all the hoops weren't jumped - the lake wasn't converted to uplands. This is something most people would consider a niggling technicality. The environmental groups sued and lost.

Now SEACC is going to the politicians. But why? Why argue about a niggling technicality? Again, it's about money and power. Can they sell their case to contributors, to the money people? Can they show the money people they have the power? Those are the real questions.

They will again distort information. SEACC can't be seen as a loser, and they will again argue that dry tailings facilities are the standard. They will say that mines are dumping waste into the wild. They won't say that tailings ponds are the standard. They won't say that tailings ponds have long been built on "waters of the United States" without serious adverse impact. They won't tell the politicians, comedians and potential contributors that mines treat the water before it is released into neighboring waters. They won't admit that the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision requires this. They won't admit that their argument boils down to the silly notion that water quality must be measured where water goes into a treatment facility, rather than where it flows out.

Can they convince the politicians? Can they convince some comedians? Perhaps, with enough misrepresentations. But they couldn't convince some thinking liberals, such as Justice Steven Breyer. The tailings will be treated in a facility that has almost no visual impact and meets Clean Water Act requirements. That would seem to be win-win scenario, a win for Kensington parent company Coeur d'Alene Mine Corp. and a win for the environment, just as Justice Breyer noted.

But the grim fact is that SEACC is not all that interested in the environment. This is about politics, fundraising and winning the fight. SEACC tells us something needs to be done and someone needs to pay them to do it - NOW. When the great aphrodisiacs of politics are in play, too bad for those who get in the way. Too bad for Juneau. We don't need this. It's time for SEACC to get a grip on itself.

• Eric Twelker is a Juneau attorney and geologist.

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