My Turn: Permit process for mine takes too long

Posted: Thursday, August 05, 2004

This is the 11th year of the most recent effort to gain permits to develop Coeur Alaska's Kensington project. This despite the fact that the people of Juneau support mining. When I first arrived in Juneau, the Alaska-Juneau mine had been closed for eight years. Hope was widespread in the community that it might yet reopen. This was the feeling of folks who had lived with the mine.

While I was mayor, we made it city policy to encourage mining as a way to diversify our economy. Strong support for mining still exists. I mention this because it would be easy to believe otherwise if one read only the newspaper or attended the countless meetings required by the permitting process, or listened to that fringe element of our community who have now declared Berners Bay the new Holy Land.

I am sure you understand, when you reflect on it, that we have a number of people who call themselves environmentalists whose employment requires them to stir up and round up opposition to any proposed development.

Let me assure you that if they were granted every restriction and delay they seek in the permitting process, they would return shortly with a new list of objections. In addition, they hold in reserve a determination to bring lawsuits as a last resort.

We had mining in Juneau from 1880 to 1944. Mining on Douglas Island began in 1881 and ended in 1922. Mining during that period was virtually unregulated.

The physical traces of mining that still exist are viewed as treasures by most of us. The capital would not be in Juneau except for mining. About 20 percent of our electric energy is still provided from the Salmon Creek and Annex Creek hydroelectric power sites, and they are producing the least expensive electricity in Alaska.

We have many trails that we use for recreation that were developed by miners. Sandy Beach was made of the waste material from the Treadwell mine. We have a municipal water reservoir converted from a mine tunnel. Flat land downtown was land reclaimed from the sea by the deposit of waste rock from the mine.

No one expects a Juneau or a Douglas to arise in Berners Bay as a consequence of the Kensington mine. But I submit that if it did it would not be a tragedy any more than Juneau was a tragedy for Gastineau Channel. It would open a magnificent area to the people of our town.

I am an environmentalist. I don't know anyone who wants to foul his own nest. I believe that the added cost of doing it right is a legitimate cost of doing any development, but that not doing it at all is the real crime in a borough, a state and a nation that cries out for good jobs for its people. We should not impose conditions on Coeur Alaska's Kensington project that would make the project uneconomic.

We have many citizens who are constructive environmentalists and work steadily to improve our already grand environment for the benefit of us all. They are overshadowed in the press and in public meetings by those who are not reconciled to the notion that people are part of the environment and must have jobs to be able to support their families.

The permitting process is outrageously long. By way of contrast, in the spring of 1942 the decision to build the Alaska Highway was made. Nine months later the 1,523-mile road was finished.

Permits were not required of Joe Juneau and Richard Harris. Neither F.W. Bradley of Treadwell and Alaska-Juneau fame nor Bart Thane of the Alaska Gastineau had to file an environmental impact statement. Undoubtedly, mistakes were made and corrected. But, as the Chinese have noted, it would be a serious error to fail to eat for fear of choking.

I don't know if that is our problem or if we have just given up on common sense and caved in to the most fearful among us. I do believe the permitting process that takes years to complete is patently ridiculous, particularly so when it likely will be followed with legal challenges.

• Bill Overstreet has lived in Juneau since 1952. He was a teacher, principal and superintendent of schools. He served one term on the Juneau Assembly and three terms as mayor.

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