My turn: Clearing the air about Cascade Point

Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2007

It is time for Coeur, Goldbelt, and Southeast Alaska Conservation Council to settle the controversy surrounding Coeur's plan to use Yankee Cove instead of Cascade Point as a site for its dock. I would like to acknowledge Goldbelt's rights and interests and to explain our position with the intent of moving the Kensington Mine forward.

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SEACC has publicly stated that we would not oppose the Kensington Mine if it protected Alaska's waters and the resources of Berners Bay. Last spring, when the court ruled that the Kensington's proposed waste facility was illegal, we offered to work with Coeur to redesign the mine, and our talks with Coeur have been productive.

Although our talks have focused on a new tailings facility, the dock at Cascade Point has been of long-standing concern to us, because it will further industrialize and pollute the bay. Cascade Point, for example, is one of the last areas of the spawning grounds that once stretched from Auke Bay to Comet Beach, where herring still spawn. Jobs have been lost and will continue to be lost as commercial fishing suffers due the drop in the number of herring. It makes no sense to create one job at the expense of someone else's job, when an alternative exists that would allow for both. Using the dock at Yankee Cove is that common sense alternative.

In our discussions with Coeur about Cascade Point- most of which took place in 2005 - we specifically requested that Goldbelt be offered a commercial alternative to the dock that was satisfactory to the company. That is, moving the dock from Cascade Point to Yankee Cove was only half the deal: The other half was that Goldbelt had to be made whole. Last June, I explained our position to Goldbelt. Several weeks ago, I talked with Goldbelt again, briefing them on the progress we have made during our talks with Coeur. When I talked with Goldbelt, I was under the impression that they were fully aware of the status of Cascade Point. This turned out not to be the case and later we discovered that there had been several miscommunications between SEACC, Coeur, and Goldbelt that led to the misunderstanding.

In the past week, Goldbelt leveled three charges against SEACC: First, they said moving Cascade Point was a "new demand" by us. This is in error and in a recent press release Goldbelt has conceded this. Second, they said we testified at a Juneau Assembly meeting that Cascade Point was not among our concerns. This, too, is in error and may be verified via the recording of the Aug. 20 meeting available on the KTOO Web site. Finally, they said that in return for Goldbelt agreeing not to select its Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act entitlement lands from Admiralty Island, conservation groups agreed not to raise conservation concerns relating to Goldbelt's use of those lands. I tried to confirm this agreement and I tracked down most of the conservationists involved with these discussions in the late 1970s. I have also talked with several congressional staff and the Carter administration official who signed the land exchange deal with Joseph Wilson, president of Goldbelt at the time. No one recollects such an agreement.

In any case, the fundamental issue at hand is whether anyone has the right to tell Goldbelt what it can and cannot do with its lands, especially lands which are the heritage of those people who were living here long before the United States came into being. The answer is no. The land is theirs and they have the right to develop it consistent with the law, with the understanding that when private development affects public lands, broader interests become engaged. The dock at Cascade Point would be on public lands and would affect a public resource, and the public has a right to a say in how public lands are used.

In the past few months, SEACC and Coeur stopped attacking each other in the press and started working together. Our talks have been successful. Now it's time for Coeur, SEACC, and Goldbelt to work together to address Goldbelt's concerns, protect the environment, and get a legal mine into production.

• Russell Heath is executive director of Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

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