My Turn: Preserve Berners Bay's true value

Posted: Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Last week, the Forest Service approved Coeur d'Alene Mines' latest proposal for the Kensington gold mine on the north shore of Berners Bay. By authorizing Coeur's mine, the Forest Service is sacrificing the rich and enduring resources of the bay for the short-term profits of an Outside mining corporation.

Berners Bay stands out as one of the most biologically productive areas in Alaska. Its unique springtime run of tens of millions of hooligan provides a feast that supports a thousand Steller sea lions, hundreds of harbor seals, 40,000 gulls, a thousand bald eagles, and hundreds and hundreds of other animals including whales, porpoises, otter, and mink. The bay also hosts one of the last viable herring runs in Lynn Canal. Like the hooligan, herring is a prey species that supports many other species, most notably salmon. Berners Bay is important to our community in many ways. Used by subsistence hunters and fishermen, commercial fishermen, tour operators, weekend picnickers, and teachers explaining the wonders of Southeast Alaska to school children, its bounty can be ours for generations if it is managed wisely.

The Kensington Mine is not a small project. Its facilities will sprawl across the bay, including two industrial port facilities to handle barges carrying supplies, fuel containers, and many thousands of tons of ore. Ferries will shuttle employees back and forth across the bay up to five times daily. Over the planned life of the mine, Coeur will dump more than 4 million tons of mining waste into Lower Slate Lake. When Coeur closes down the mine in 10 years, it will leave behind unknown damage to the bay's rich fisheries and marine life and a dam that must hold back forever millions of tons of mining waste. For Coeur's short-term profits, Juneau must bear the mine's long-term costs.

Juneau residents are not the only ones with concerns about Coeur's proposal to site the mine in Berners Bay. In its official statement on the proposal, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that building the mine on the north shore of the bay will cause more damage than Coeur's currently approved and permitted plan to build the mine on the shore of Lynn Canal. In its statement, the EPA warned of long-term damage to Lower Slate Lake and "significant impacts" to the bay's marine resources.

Furthermore, the National Marine Fisheries Service formally rejected the Forest Service's conclusion that the proposed mine project "was not likely to adversely affect" marine mammals. NMFS is currently preparing a biological opinion requested by the Forest Service to formulate "reasonable and prudent" alternatives to avoid jeopardizing the bay's endangered or threatened marine mammals. Even though the Forest Service knew that NMFS's opinion - critical to any wise decision affecting the bay - would not be completed for several months, it refused to wait before approving the project.

Finally, it is a mistake to consider the effects of the mine in isolation. Responsible management of the long-term health of Berners Bay requires evaluating the effects of all projects proposed along its shores together, not separately. What, for example, will be the effects on humpback whales from both the mine and the road to Skagway? Together, the impacts are likely to be far greater than from either project alone.

All of us share a responsibility to ensure that our children benefit from the same opportunities and uses of Berners Bay's riches that we now enjoy. Safeguarding the long-term integrity of the bay will provide much more to Juneau than the short-term benefits from a gold mine. The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council appreciates the leadership demonstrated by the EPA, NMFS, and all others who are willing to stand up for the bay. A treasure such as Berners Bay deserves no less.

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

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