Safeguards at Kensington mine outweigh risks

Vantage Point

Posted: Sunday, August 01, 2004

Robert Hale is publisher of the Juneau Empire.

For those of you who are utterly aghast at our editorial endorsement of Coeur Alaska's proposed Kensington mine north of Juneau, rest assured it's not the end of the world as you know it.

From my own perspective, it's easy to support the Kensington and I say that for a couple of reasons and on a couple of different levels. One is because of what the mine represents relative to economic development and because of what it doesn't represent relative to industrial development, and the two are very different.

First up, if I were going to the polls today and I had the chance to vote for or against the Kensington, I'd pull the lever for it. In doing so I'd have two things firmly in mind: the highly industrialized town in which I grew up, and a couple of farming communities in which I lived and worked in the mid-1980s. The former characterizes what economic development shouldn't be; the latter goes to why it's important for a community's survival.

My home town, situated on the Houston ship channel on the Texas Gulf Coast, is one that, for my money, had lost its future by about 1970. Actually, it gave away its future in allowing the kind of rampant, uncontrolled growth that made it one big pollution zone at the hands of large petrochemical plants, numerous oil and gas refineries among them.

The economy in and around Houston was also rather healthy. There wasn't much of a clearly defined upper class in my home town, and the same was largely true of a lower class. The middle class was huge: good jobs and tens of thousands of them in a blue-collar community. Cookie-cutter houses in cookie-cutter subdivisions and two cars in most every garage.

The town grew for many years and eventually met up with metro Houston on the other side of the Trinity River. Ours was a smokestack economy and the reminders of that were visible every day and night: Acrid emissions clouded the skies most days and the gas fires of the refineries illuminated night skies with a gentle amber glow.

Life remains rather good in and around Houston these days, but the area is still characterized by its polluted air, land and water. It's not a place I ever want to go back to.

The quality of life and living in the Midwest was a real eye-opener in the mid- '80s when the farm economy was at its worst. Whereas jobs were almost infinitely plentiful on the Texas Gulf Coast, decent jobs were almost impossible in two towns in which I lived in Iowa and Missouri at that time. These were towns with no real advantages relative to economic development; neither had much with which to sell itself - no interstate highway, no large airport, no rail line or no waterway nearby. No attractions for tourists, either.

Many small towns in the Midwest have long been desperate to create well-paying, long-lasting jobs and it's not easy for them to do so. In many cases their only strength is that their town is quaint and its people are good. As for new jobs, they about take what they can get. How unenviable is that?

In Juneau the proposed Kensington gold mine has been on the table in one form or another for 16 years, and the U.S. Forest Service, the federal agency that will ultimately determine its fate, will issue a decision on Coeur Alaska's (the Kensington's parent company) final environmental impact statement in a matter of weeks.

The decision on the Kensington is a touchy one because of the business/industry-versus-environment struggle that has ensued since 1988. Well, with this one I'm weighing in on the side of job creation.

I don't see the Kensington as being the pollution or environmental threat that many in this community do. Coeur has negotiated a tricky maze in securing the more than 30 permits and authorizations it will need to mine gold, and obtaining those from a half-dozen state and federal oversight agencies hasn't come easily.

While I think there certainly are a number of valid concerns surrounding the environmental impact of the mine, I also think there are safeguards built into the permitting process. The area in and around Berners Bay must be closely protected, and in doing so Coeur has a huge responsibility that it cannot mismanage.

I also happen to think more and better jobs are essential for Juneau and for Southeast Alaska. It's unlikely the state or federal governments will create new jobs here, and additional tourism is unlikely to create the kinds of well-paying jobs we'll see in association with the Kensington.

If Juneau is going to diversify its economic base (and I think it must) it has to assume at least some risk in doing so. In the case of the Kensington mine, because of the state and federal regulations it must meet, I think the risk we're assuming has been closely calculated.

As we've stated in today's editorial, the Kensington isn't the most important issue Juneau has faced of late, nor will it be the most important one we face in the next few years. I'm willing to bet most folks here care a whole lot more about the fate of a proposed second high school than they do about the opening of the mine. I do think they recognize the value and the importance of creating more than 200 well-paying jobs, however.

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