We've reached the moment of truth

Both sides in Kensington dispute need to move project forward through negotiation

Posted: Wednesday, September 12, 2007

For the past three weeks the tension, apprehension and, yes, suspicion surrounding Juneau's Kensington Mine has grown in speed and intensity. It's now at a feverish pitch.

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In fact, many in this community are downright dyspeptic over it. What are we to do?

Well, for starters, try to relax just a little.

Very recently I told some of the key players in this make-or-break battle this: The Kensington Mine is neither Juneau's economic salvation in and of itself, nor does it represent full-scale destruction of the Berners Bay area. In that respect, it's not life and death for Juneau residents.

If the mine makes it, that's great. All those years of planning, permitting, preparation and perspiration will have paid off. Jobs in and for Southeast Alaska will have been created, the region's economic base will have been expanded and diversified, and Juneau will be all the better for it. Some in the conservation community may be apoplectic over the mine's opening, but none will bleed out over it.

If the mine ultimately breaks, there are definite downsides. Some 20 years of hard work - and more than $200 million spent on state and federal permits and construction - will have gone for naught, at least for the foreseeable future. Jobs will have been lost along with a real measure of economic development. No one will die because of it, however.

So, where are we today with the whole mine thing, anyway? The moment of truth. No more, no less.

Folks on both sides of the mine issue are as churned up as they are because of this: Three weeks ago, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council went before the Juneau Assembly and said, in effect, that the environmental community is ready to negotiate with Coeur Alaska, which owns the Kensington Mine, on an alternative for disposal of its mine tailings. In short, that alternative would involve dry-stack tailings and not disposal into Lower Slate Lake as has been the plan. It's much more complicated than that, but there's not enough newsprint in production for a full explanation.

Ten days after SEACC's invitation to negotiate, Dennis Wheeler, the chairman, president and CEO of Coeur d'Alene Mines, the parent company of Coeur Alaska, accepted SEACC's invite with an impassioned, evangelical presentation before the Juneau Chamber of Commerce at its weekly business luncheon. Wheeler not only RSVP'd to SEACC, he all but set the record straight, once and for all, relative to misconceptions, misquotes, inaccuracies, half-truths and outright lies that have been uttered about the mine from Day 1.

Now both sides are ready to rumble at center-ring. The trouble is, neither side is sure what the rules of engagement look like and how negotiations can and will proceed. Nor does either side know how soon negotiations may begin.

I'd bet that all of the 150-plus who heard Wheeler preach the Kensington gospel at the Aug. 30 chamber lunch believe that getting the mine matter settled will be quick and easy. Well, they're wrong. It'll be anything but easy. Here's why:

The mine folks and the environmentalists have before them a huge challenge just in agreeing on how - and under what circumstances - negotiations will proceed. That means they've got a whole lot of work to do in setting the table before they can sit at it. Both sides will have to let go of some old and tired baggage - stuff that's happened over the past five, 10, 15 years - and focus on where we are today and what's really possible from this point forward.

Setting the table isn't going to happen if the key players on both sides can't muster some real civility, creativity and collegiality from the very beginning of this process, and they'll need even more of it once talks begin.

At this point, the challenge for both sides is to strip away all that no longer matters and get down to what's most important for moving the mine project forward. At stake is an awful lot of permitting and preparation work that perhaps can be salvaged as part of successful negotiations. That work is too valuable to lose unless absolutely necessary for an overall greater good.

The keys to this whole issue may boil down to the ability of both sides to simplify what otherwise could be a labyrinthine process, to overcome setbacks and obstacles in a civil and creative manner, and to be completely honest with this community in an open and transparent manner along the way. Negotiations will never succeed without that transparency.

If a successful compromise is reached on the Kensington Mine - and both sides say they're absolutely committed to that outcome - it could be one of the most important achievements in Juneau and in Southeast Alaska in the past 50 years, perhaps longer.

• Robert Hale is publisher of the Juneau Empire.

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