Empire editorial: Kensington mine project: a good fit for Alaska's future

Posted: Sunday, August 18, 2002

In a My Turn column on Thursday, Fairbanks state Rep. Bill Whitaker issued a thoughtful, although guardedly positive analysis of Alaska economic fortunes. His message recalled the "collective, can-do spirit" of the pioneers, settlers, and entrepreneurs who built a society and an economy out of the intrinsic riches of the land that would become the state of Alaska.

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Whitaker noted that even though Alaska is one of the country's richest states, with vast natural resources and a $25 billion trust fund, we are losing our ability to "control the amount and flow of wealth from our resources." He added: "Alaskans are becoming poorer, demonstrated by the statistical fact that Alaska's average income has receded from amongst the highest in the nation to barely the national average."

He insightfully acknowledged that political forces outside the realm of our influence are at the root of our loss of control. Southeast Alaska has unquestionably suffered the deepest from this loss of control.

The pulse of Southeast Alaska's economy barely registers a beat. The thinly populated region has lost nearly 4,000 jobs over the past decade, mostly in the timber and seafood sectors. The region can expect to lose more commercial fishing jobs and if "capital creep" continues; more government jobs.

Now, the region is presented a wonderful opportunity to regain some of what has been lost, to convert the wealth that is in the ground into jobs, opportunity, and hope for the future. Coeur Alaska has been working since 1987 to reopen the Kensington and the adjoining Jualin mine located 40 miles north of Juneau.

Kensington would contribute 225 new, year-round jobs with an annual payroll of $16 million. If the mine opens, the region's economy would be further served by as many as 180 indirect jobs resulting in millions of dollars changing hands up and down the economic food chain. Tax revenues would also swell. The rich deposits in the two mines could sustain operations for 15 to 30 years.

On the other side of the positives associated with this project are the usual cast of detractors who are working to distort the facts and make issues out of non-issues in a desperate effort to disparage the project.

The facts are these: Berners Bay will not be harmed, the salmon in the Lynn Canal, Berners Bay and neighboring streams will not be affected. The timber at the mining site has little commercial value and would remain standing. The mining site will be nearly invisible from the water.

A complete and thorough environmental impact statement process will be strictly followed through to total compliance. The Kensington area already is zoned for mining under the Tongass Land and Resource Management Plan.

The revised plan for Kensington is better than the one submitted a few years ago. The new plan uses 25 percent less land and eliminates a volatile chemical extraction process that posed a legitimate concern under the old concept.

The new proposal calls for a small lake up on the mountain to be used to hold mine tailings because this solution ultimately is the least obtrusive to the viewscape and to the environment. When the ore plays out, the mountain will gain a bigger, more beautiful lake with a totally restored fishery.

The tailings placed in the lakebed would be more inert than the glacier deposits resting on the bottom of Berners Bay. During use, the creek that feeds the lake will be diverted around the lakebed. Coeur, the parent company, is required to post up front adequate funds to cover all reclamation costs.

Modern regulations and oversight leave no margin for bad mining practices. One of the world's most environmentally responsible mining operations can be found just a few miles away at Greens Creek on Admiralty Island. When Greens Creek shuts down, there will be scant evidence that it ever existed. These are the facts.

U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, introduced a plan that would streamline the permitting process and provide benefits to two Native corporations. The Cape Fox Land Entitlement Adjustment Act of 2002, (S.2222) would simplify U.S. Forest Service boundaries and consolidate Cape Fox, Sealaska and Tongass National Forest surface and subsurface ownership rights. The legislation would also uncomplicate Coeur's permitting process by consolidating the Kensington and Jualin mines into one mining district. S.2222 would not open any new lands to mining, does not subrogate any environmental safeguards and does not reduce public involvement in the project's environmental permitting process.

Coeur has an excellent environmental record. The company has spent millions bringing a dormant, 100-year-old mine into modern compliance. Coeur has demonstrated a commitment to leave a legacy of responsible mining and reclamation. This project is deserving of our total support.

Don Smith



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