Mining in bay pressed

Posted: Friday, August 11, 2000

The National Park Service should allow mining in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve or buy out the state university's claim to a world-class mineral deposit, says Sen. Frank Murkowski.

The Alaska Republican, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, berated the Interior Department at a hearing Thursday in Juneau.

``You set the standard (for development) so high that the economics won't support the project, and you buy them out. But in this case you have ignored the property,'' Murkowski said.

``This case'' is the Brady deposit of nickel, copper, cobalt and platinum. The University of Alaska owns 400 acres of patented mining claims under the Brady Glacier, about 12 miles north of Palma Bay on the park's outer waters.

It's a world-class deposit, said Bob Trent, recently retired dean of the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Mineral Engineering.

And it would be the United States' only domestic source of cobalt, ``an extremely important strategic metal,'' said Paul Metz, a university mineral professor. ``We can't make an aircraft engine without cobalt.''

The university bought the claims in 1997 for $100,000, with an obligation to pay royalties to the former owners if a mine is developed. The university intended to trade the claims for other federal land that could be developed for revenue, spokesman Bob Miller said.

But the Brady deposits are worth at least $2.6 billion, Metz said, and the likelihood of finding replacement federal lands is extremely low.

With new mining technology, the site could be developed profitably, Trent said. Even the road from a port to the deposit and any milling facility could be underground, he said. Tailings -- the rock debris after mining -- could be made into construction materials and not dumped in the ocean, he added.

But the mine would have to jump a high environmental hurdle to be permitted in the park, according to the Interior Department.

The mine is in a designated wilderness, and the coast has large populations of sea otters, sea lions and birds, said Destry Jarvis, a senior official in the agency.

The threat of mining in Glacier Bay National Park was one of the reasons for a new parks mining law in 1976, he said.

Congress and the courts have said ``mining in the national parks will only occur in ways that cause no significant harm to the park,'' Jarvis said. ``This is a high hurdle ... and it's one the National Park Service will uphold.''

He said the agency would be more likely to approve a mine that didn't include surface facilities. But no one has submitted a development proposal, he said.

Murkowski pressed Jarvis on why the Interior Department hadn't recommended that Congress buy the claims. The parks mining act requires the Park Service to consider such recommendations.

``That's a valid question. Perhaps they should be (bought),'' Jarvis said.

It's too early to say what the university's position would be to a buy out, spokesman Miller said today from Fairbanks.

But he said, ``This is all consistent with the reasoning the regents used when they bought the claims.''

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