My Turn: Plan for Kensington mine is environmentally responsible

Posted: Friday, July 19, 2002

The Kensington gold project returned to the news when Sen. Frank Murkowski introduced SB 2222, the Cape Fox Land Entitlement Adjustment Act of 2002.

This bill would consolidate Cape Fox, Sealaska and Tongass National Forest surface and subsurface estates and simplify Forest Service boundaries. It would also simplify Coeur Alaska's efforts to reopen the Kensington gold project 45 miles north of Juneau.

Critics allege SB 2222 would let Coeur cut corners at the public's expense. They say the swap would allow mining on protected lands and help Kensington bypass important environmental safeguards.

These claims are false. Arguments against environmentally responsible mine developments are really bids to keep Juneau residents underemployed and tourist-dominated.

The Tongass Land and Resource Management Plan already zones the Kensington area for mining. SB 2222 would neither open lands to mining nor reduce any environmental standards.

Coeur's benefit would be simplified boundaries and land leases. SB 2222 would consolidate the Kensington and Jualin mines into a single mining district for more efficient management and permitting. It would also boost Juneau's economy by sending all of Coeur's lease payments to local Native corporations instead of the federal government.

Kensington must meet the same environmental standards with or without the land exchange. Coeur already permitted this project in 1998. However, that plan became impractical when gold prices fell by one-third.

Coeur is now working with regulators to permit a downsized project that could succeed at today's gold prices. This plan has significantly less environmental impact than the permitted project. It:

• Ships gold concentrate off-site for gold recovery. No cyanide processing would occur in Southeast Alaska.

• Has a 25 percent smaller footprint and less surface disturbance because it eliminates on-site living and storage facilities and uses existing roads and land that has been associated with mining since the late 1800s. The site would be virtually invisible from water level.

• Significantly reduces mine-site helicopter traffic.

• Stores mine tailings in Lower Slate Lake. Water flow into this remote, muskeg lake would temporarily be diverted and then restored as a fishery during reclamation. Mine tailings consist of inert rock and have fewer metals and less toxicity and environmental impact than glacial sediments that naturally cover the bottom of Berners Bay. Lake-bottom tailings storage would improve run-off water quality and site reclamation. It would also minimize impact on fish and wildlife and risks associated with seismic activity. There would be no permanent wetlands loss and no salmon would be affected.

The revised Kensington gold project would economically benefit everybody in Juneau. Disappearing government, fishing and timber jobs reduced Juneau's average wage 10 percent during the 1990s at the same time the rest of the country's average wage climbed 12 percent. Juneau's economy is increasingly dependent upon low-paying, seasonal cruise-ship and service-industry jobs and visitor-generated sales- and head-tax revenue.

Kensington would help reverse this trend by diversifying Juneau's economy. It would create 225 year-round jobs with an annual payroll of $16 million. It would last at least 15 years, support an additional 180 indirect jobs and generate millions of dollars in local spending and tax revenue.

Critics say Kensington's benefits aren't worth its cost to local lifestyles and they claim that Coeur is in financial trouble and can't be trusted to develop Kensington in an environmentally responsible way. Again, this simply is not true.

The weak economy is the biggest threat to Juneau lifestyles. Coeur's debt conversion problem is resolved and the company now surpasses the rigorous financial standards required for listing on the New York Stock Exchange. Coeur remains the nation's largest silver producer and a significant gold producer. It will be operating for years to come.

Consequently it is in Coeur's best economic interest to develop an environmentally responsible Kensington project. The days of mining out deposits and abandoning sites are over. Regulators require reclamation and rehabilitation bonds to ensure proper mine closure. Coeur understands that profitable mines rely upon local people and resources and minimize environmental disturbances and reclamation costs. This philosophy has earned them 19 national and international environmental awards during the last decade.

Coeur's success depends upon operating environmentally responsible mine projects. There is no reason it would change this practice in the future.

Rick Richins is vice president of Coeur Alaska Inc. He has been involved with the Kensington gold project for 16 years.

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