My Turn: A word of warning about gold mining

Posted: Thursday, December 02, 2004

A word of caution to Juneau as it considers Coeur Alaska's proposal to open the Kensington gold mine. As a 40-plus-year resident of the Coeur d'Alene Valley in Idaho, I urge you to think hard about the consequences of taking on a large mine in your back yard.

It's a simple fact that for mining companies, as for all businesses, profits come first. Mines like Kensington are expensive to run, and prices only go up when you factor in the cost of mining responsibly to protect the environment, public health, and competing community interests in an area. Unfortunately, all you have to do is visit places like my home state to see how unwillingly mining companies shoulder these costs.

In Idaho, a century of metals mining and smelting has left behind more than 70 million tons of mine waste, much of it in the Coeur d'Alene River. This toxic waste doesn't just sit there. Our children have some of the highest lead levels in the country. Entire neighborhoods and towns have been deemed unsafe for habitation, and families have been faced with the choice of moving away or accepting the health risks. Signs posted near trails, rivers and lakes warn us not to drink or swim, at the risk of exposing ourselves to toxic levels of cadmium, lead, zinc and other heavy-metal contaminants. Fisheries and traditional hunting grounds have been decimated. Every spring, hundreds of tundra swans and other migratory birds die in the killing fields of the lower Coeur d'Alene River after drinking water polluted with lead.

Depressingly, mining companies have consistently done everything in their power to avoid paying for cleaning up the mess. Already millions of dollars of public funds have gone toward cleanup efforts but the sad fact is that no one, whether it's the industry or the government, wants to take on the enormous challenge of ensuring that our land is safe to live on.

Coeur d'Alene Mines, of which Coeur Alaska is a subsidiary, is among the many companies that have contributed to mining's toxic legacy over the years. To give an example, in 2001 the company settled a multi-million dollar lawsuit that charged that Coeur and other mining companies were responsible for polluting the Coeur d'Alene River Basin, now home of the largest toxic waste Superfund site in the nation.

Coeur likes to tell about their great environmental record, and that they even received an award for the company's Rochester mine in Nevada. What they do not tell you is shortly after receiving the award it was found that the mine was contaminating the groundwater with toxic pollutants and those environmental groups who gave the award now regret it. The Rochester mine was cited last year for cyanide levels violating Nevada water quality standards.

Coeur is already permitted to open the Kensington Mine and now is pursuing a cheaper plan to operate in Berners Bay itself.

If you don't have to have mining operations directly in this beautiful area of Berners Bay, don't. It's not worth the impacts that the mine could have on a natural treasure like Berners Bay, the seafood that fishermen catch, on the sea mammals that guides bring visitors to watch, the moose and deer that hunters stalk, and on the community recreation areas. The Kensington Mine may offer jobs to Juneau for 10-15 years, but these jobs will come at a price that will be paid for a long, long time.

Please think what mining has done to Idaho and then take a look at what you now have. Idaho took the mines with all their promises and now we are paying the price and will for many years to come.

• Barbara Miller is director of the Silver Valley Community Resource Center in Idaho.

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