Empire editorial: Follow through on call for open mine negotiations

Posted: Friday, November 02, 2007

Nine weeks after the head of Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp. called for negotiations that could bring the Kensington Mine online by the end of this year or early next year, Juneau residents are left wondering what's happened to the public transparency called for at that time.

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On Aug. 30 Dennis Wheeler, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Coeur d'Alene Mines, spoke to a packed meeting of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce and threw down the gauntlet for negotiations between the mining company and three environmental groups that have prevented it from opening: the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC), Lynn Canal Conservation and the Sierra Club. Coeur d'Alene Mines is the parent company of the Kensington Mine owner Coeur Alaska.

Wheeler's speech to the chamber was as impressive as it was passionate. His follow-through, however, has been far less impressive. That's unfortunate, especially since this week the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to rehear Coeur's case involving its method of disposing mine tailings at Kensington.

What's happened since Aug. 30 is this, as far as we know: Coeur officials and those with one or more of the environmental groups named by Wheeler are evidently negotiating on how - and by what means - a new method of tailings disposal might be worked out.

The courts have ruled that disposing of the mine tailings in a nearby lake would violate the federal Clean Water Act. Coeur and environmentalists are trying to reach a compromise that will be acceptable to each of the parties involved, to the myriad governmental permitting agencies and to the community of Juneau.

What's missing now is the centerpiece of Wheeler's presentation to the Chamber of Commerce: accountability to the public. Relative to any negotiations that would take place, Wheeler specifically said this: "We will rely on you and the rest of the community to judge Kensington (Mine's) performance record and the performance of the plaintiffs (SEACC, Lynn Canal Conservation and Sierra Club) and Coeur."

He then said, "If SEACC, Sierra Club and Lynn Canal Conservation do as they say they intend to do - we will jointly be reporting back to you on our progress during the coming few weeks," and ended his presentation with, "I also ask that you participate in meetings and hold SEACC, Sierra Club and Lynn Canal Conservation and Coeur accountable for further actions to bring the Kensington project into production."

Wheeler also spoke of "public report cards" that would demonstrate to Juneau and Southeast Alaska which of the groups discussed herein "are living up to their commitments."

Well, what Wheeler said would happen hasn't happened and it doesn't appear it will be happening anytime soon.

Somewhere, in some form, with someone mediating on some sort of basis, some negotiations between Coeur and one or more environmental groups may be taking place. Some progress may have been made. Some setbacks may have occurred. Some sort of agreement, based on some new way of disposing of mine tailings could be in the offing, but we have no way of knowing.

If the environmental groups had issued the challenge to negotiate openly and have community involvement and then there was none, many in town would be livid.

Why no "jointly reporting back to the community" as promised? Why no public participation in meetings where all parties could be held accountable? Why no "public report cards" so that all of Juneau and Southeast Alaska can know of the negotiations and understand them?

Is it because the environmental groups dictated there'll be no public disclosure? Is it because the parties on both sides agreed there'll be no transparency? Or is it because Coeur itself made such a determination? We just don't know, and that's a huge disservice to this community as we want Juneau's best current hope for economic development to be functional, not defunct.

Wheeler did an outstanding job of talking the talk before the chamber of commerce nine weeks ago. But, to the disappointment of those who are counting on him, he's not walking the walk.

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