Sixteen years after initiating the first environmental impact statement (EIS) for its proposed Kensington gold mine, Coeur Alaska is now but weeks from learning the fate of the project that has been both controversial and divisive for Southeast residents and for environmental and business groups almost from the beginning.
The public comment period for the supplemental EIS that Coeur currently has on the table ends Thursday, after which officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Natural Resources, the city of Juneau and the state Department of Environmental Conservation will offer their comments before a final record of decision is issued by the U.S. Forest Service.
After three full years of studying this latest permit request by Coeur - a process that has required the acquisition of 30-plus permits and authorizations by the state and federal oversight agencies - it's time for the Kensington mine to win approval and begin construction for its operations late this fall.
The benefits and the downsides of the Kensington project have been hotly debated since 1988. Coeur won permits for its operations in 1992 and again in 1998, but has since modified its proposal into one that will disturb fewer acres of land (196 acres, down from 287 acres) and that will have less impact on the waters of Lynn Canal but could have greater impact on the pristine waters of Berners Bay some 45 miles north of Juneau.
For Southeast Alaska, and for Juneau in particular, the importance of the Kensington mine is obvious because of what it represents in terms of economic development. The creation of 300 well-paying jobs during peak construction of the mine, with an annual payroll of approximately $16 million, is just too great to ignore. And so is the creation of some 180 indirect jobs that will last the 10-year life of the mine.
For the jobs that will be created during the construction and production phases of the mine (about 200 jobs during the production years), Coeur has promised a local- and Native-hire rate of 85 percent to 90 percent from Southeast Alaska. The jobs the mine will provide include those for managers, administrators, engineers, geologists, assayers (testers of metal and ore), equipment operators, miners, laborers, maintenance workers and truck drivers. Few, if any, of those will be menial jobs.
If those of us in Juneau and Southeast are to benefit from a more diverse economic base, we have to look beyond the current staples of state and tourism related jobs. There simply must be more to the local economic equation. Like so many communities in any other state, our future is tied directly to education, health care and the creation of jobs.
In the case of the Kensington mine, with the permitting and regulatory hoops through which Coeur Alaska has had to jump for a half-dozen regulatory agencies since the late 1980s, we're dealing with a company that will be closely overseen and monitored at every turn. Those who suggest that the Environmental Protection Agency and others like it are overly eager to give in to Coeur surely can't be right.
The $25 million that Coeur has spent on environmental studies hasn't been just for show. Rather, it has been to prove to the agencies from which it must secure operating permits that it will be a good steward of the land it will mine for the next decade.
The opening of the Kensington mine isn't the biggest issue this community has faced within the past five years and it won't be the most important issue of the next five. The creation of well-paying, long-term jobs is essential, however, for a healthy, robust economy, and Juneau and Southeast need that now.