My turn: Southeast communities depend on mining jobs

Posted: Sunday, October 28, 2007

I have watched with great interest Coeur Alaska's efforts to reopen the Kensington Mine. I have been a commercial fisherman for 38 years, lifetime member of United Fishermen of Alaska, former director of several fishing organizations, a Native leader, and the Alaska House representative for District 5. It has been an honor to be involved in these capacities.

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The opening of the Kensington mine has been a controversial issue in my district for sometime. Now, after Coeur has invested more than $200 million, the mine is ready to begin operations. However, the date that those operations will begin is uncertain due to current litigation.

The Kensington Mine will be a mine. Environmental groups know, and openly admit, this. They say they are not against the mine, but every time I pick up the paper, I see yet another blockade that has been thrown into the path of the opening of the mine.

As a commercial fisherman, I understand the environmental concerns that arise from opening a mine in Berners Bay. Fishing is my livelihood. It is who I am. I would never want any other commercial activity to jeopardize this. However, the information that has been presented to not only myself, but other local fisherman, has led me to believe that using Lower Slate Lake for a tailings facility is the best option, with the least potential impact on the local fishing community.

Southeast Alaska is suffering economically. Based on the annual Juneau Economic Overview prepared by the Juneau Economic Development Council, these are the hard facts:

There has been no growth in the Southeast Alaska population since 2000. From 2000 to 2006, 1,600 people left our capital. Since 1995, Juneau's per capita income has grown 16 percent below the statewide level. Compared to 1999, today there are 452 fewer grade school students and 156 fewer middle school students in Juneau.

Coeur has been honorable in training and placing Alaska Native shareholders and Southeast Alaskans at the Kensington site. They came to town boasting a local hire and contracting policy and kept their word. A number of my constituents now enjoy year-round high-paying jobs. It is crucial that we keep these jobs.

The mine needs to be allowed to proceed and to continue to offer jobs in Southeast Alaska. It needs to operate at the highest environmental standards, subject to sophisticated monitoring requirements. This is what we all want, and we want it to happen now - not three years from tomorrow. Our schools and communities depend on these jobs.

• Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, represents House District 5.

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