My Turn: Bringing 'sustainable' mining to Alaska

Posted: Sunday, December 08, 2002

In Thursday's Empire an article entitled "Official pushes for sustainable mining" caught my eye. The official, Rebecca Watson of President Bush's Interior Department, made some very important points about the mining industry.

Ms. Watson stressed that mining corporations have a history of creating public health and environmental messes and then packing up and leaving town. She also mentioned that taxpayers often end up having to pay to clean up these messes because the corporations bankrupt themselves to avoid financial liability.

How does this apply to Alaska? Coeur d'Alene Mining Corp., is a perfect case study. This Idaho-based company already has the permits necessary to open the Kensington mine but is trying to cut costs by cutting corners - at our expense. Instead of piling mine waste on its own land, Coeur wants to turn a pristine national forest lake in Berners Bay into a waste dump with no water treatment system.

Coeur says its new plan will save the corporation $55 million in startup and operating costs. The Environmental Protection Agency recently told the Empire that Coeur's new plan will violate the Clean Water Act.

Cutting corners is a common theme for Coeur. The corporation was forced to do superfund clean up of toxic waste generated by mining operations that poisoned people and places in Idaho. Coeur is partly responsible for one of the largest superfund sites in the country in the Silver Valley, where they were involved in settling millions of dollars of pollution damages.

In 1997 shareholders of the corporation filed a class action suit against the company for misrepresenting environmental problems in Chile and New Zealand. The corporation was found liable and its insurance company was made to pay over $7 million. Another suit charging the corporation with violating federal securities laws cost the corporation more than $5 million. These lawsuits and superfund charges were brought against the company because it failed to do the right thing in the first place: pay the money up front to control mining pollution.

Perhaps the most important question is how Coeur d'Alene Mining Corp., plans to pay for cleaning up the mess it wants to make in Berners Bay. Coeur made the papers in April of this year because it was so close to bankruptcy. The company hasn't turned a profit in nearly six years and recently told an Idaho paper that it lost $12.3 million in the third quarter of this year. This is actually good news for a company that lost a grand total of $51.3 million in 2001.

To railroad the repermitting of the Kensington mine, Coeur is pushing a bill in Congress that would privatize and close public access to 12,000 acres of national forest land in Berners Bay, an important Juneau recreation area.

We all know that Juneau needs jobs. We also know that people live in Alaska because it is wild and beautiful. We need industries that have respect for the law, people and environment. We need local businesses that will pay their own way, won't pollute our land and water, and will clean up their mess before they leave. What we don't need is the possibility for hundreds of years of water contamination in Juneau's back yard.

Coeur d'Alene Corp., doesn't have the money to open the Kensington mine using its current permits because they are broke and the price of gold is low. This is no reason to offer them a sweetheart deal that threatens Berners Bay. Judging from the corporation's history of pollution problems, repermitting the corporation to dump mine waste into a pristine lake above Berners Bay is risky business for Juneau. The corporation should do it right or not do it at all. Juneau deserves nothing less.

Shoren Brown lives in Juneau and is the mining and water quality grassroots organizer for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

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