Goldbelt won its permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to operate a dock at Cascade Point for the Kensington Gold Mine.
The dock is one of the most controversial pieces of the Kensington project because it is located within a spawning area for Lynn Canal's remnant herring stock and could open the area to other uses, such as tourism.
The permit, which will allow Kensington workers to transit Berners Bay 45 miles northwest of Juneau, was issued Friday to Goldbelt, Juneau's urban Native corporation.
A Goldbelt consultant hailed the project Monday, noting the gold mine will bring jobs to Juneau. But Juneau environmentalists said the Corps of Engineers dropped the ball by allowing the dock to be built in an ecologically sensitive spot.
"It's an environmentally responsible project in spite of the controversy," said Randy Wanamaker, Goldbelt consultant and Juneau Assembly member.
But Russell Heath, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, said, "The corps is not taking its responsibility under the Endangered Species Act, or the health of the bay, seriously."
Wanamaker said work on the dock could begin as early as August.
Using state funds, Goldbelt is building a three-mile gravel road to reach the dock this summer. Work is proceeding at a rate of about 200 to 500 feet per day, and almost one mile was completed by Saturday, Wanamaker said.
Goldbelt intends to use Cascade Point as a launching spot for tourist boats in the future but that kind of use for the dock has not been approved yet.
"This permit should never have been given," said Mark Rorick, with the Juneau chapter of the Sierra Club. He said the NMFS biological consultation for the project, required by the Endangered Species Act, was fatally flawed because it didn't analyze Goldbelt's future use of the dock for tourism, Rorick said.
The dock permit had to go through an "extra step" because of an objection by the National Marine Fisheries Service regarding the dock's potential harm to fish habitat, said John Leeds, Corps of Engineers' Juneau office manager.
Herring are an important food source for humpback whales and Steller sea lions, both listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The National Marine Fisheries Service had strongly recommended that the Corps of Engineers not approve the Cascade Point project. NMFS officials said it was preferable to locate the dock outside Berners Bay, noting possible sites such as Echo Cove or Yankee Cove.
But when the Corps issued its notice to approve the permit, "We decided not to pursue the matter further," said Jon Kurland, director of the agency's regional Office of Habitat.
Rorick and other critics Monday complained of heavy pressure from Washington, D.C., political appointees on NMFS regional staff to stand down on the corps permit.
"We were never given instructions on what our position ought to be," Kurland said.
Kurland said his staff did get feedback from his agency's national headquarters on the permit.
"It's no secret that it's a high-profile project. ... We involved headquarters in some of those discussions," he said.
Coeur Alaska plans to build a sister dock at Slate Creek Cove, on the west side of Berners Bay, where Kensington mine workers will disembark for bus rides to the mine.
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