Empire editorial: Secrecy is at the heart of Goldbelt-SEACC dispute

Posted: Sunday, December 23, 2007

The war over the Kensington Mine appeared to be dying down, with Coeur Alaska and environmental groups tentatively agreeing to an alternative method of tailings disposal last month, until a recent flare-up over a dock at Cascade Point renewed antagonism.

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City-mediated negotiations between Coeur and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council apparently not only centered on rock waste.

Unfortunately, Goldbelt wasn't invited to the table.

Juneau's urban Native corporation thought it was building a transfer station at Cascade Point.

But now Coeur is scrapping plans for the Cascade Point dock in exchange for a transfer station at Yankee Cove, and Goldbelt is fighting mad.

Goldbelt is understandably angry; its transfer station project is already halfway completed and the change in plans comes as a shock.

When Dennis Wheeler, the head of Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp., whose company owns Coeur Alaska, called for unprecedented negotiations with environmental groups on Aug. 30, he called for openness and public accountability. But in reality, we've gotten just the exact opposite. Instead of an inclusive process featuring public participation and public "report cards," we had a series of meetings that didn't even include all the major players.

Such an approach breeds miscommunication and distrust, which happened in the case of Goldbelt. Coeur Alaska apparently told groups attending the negotiating sessions that an arrangement had been made regarding the location of the transfer station. But when SEACC informed the Native corporation that the dock had been moved to Yankee Cove, Goldbelt's CEO was shocked to hear the news.

In the immediate aftermath of the revelation, the Empire was deluged with letters from Goldbelt and SEACC that were reminiscent of the flood of comments we have received on the Kensington issue over the years. Many in this community understandably feel confused and frustrated with a process that now leaves them feeling duped by the closed-door negotiations.

Goldbelt's CEO and board of directors believe SEACC and other environmental groups have conspired to deprive the corporation from developing its land on Cascade Point. They have accused these groups of "targeting an economically distressed minority group" and have vowed to pursue developing a marine facility at Cascade Point.

In its own defense, SEACC says it believes no one has the right to tell Goldbelt what it can or cannot do with its lands - except if private development affects public lands. In this case, the environmental group contends the dock threatens herring spawning grounds, a public resource.

But Goldbelt shouldn't scapegoat SEACC for what happened in closed-door meetings over the past three months. All parties in the private meetings - Mayor Bruce Botelho, SEACC and Coeur - all share in the blame for excluding Goldbelt. By being secretive, all three parties did Goldbelt a great disservice and needlessly rekindled animosities between pro-development and environmental forces.

What needs to happen is for SEACC, Coeur and Goldbelt to sit down and develop a plan that would compensate the Native corporation for its commercial loss. And they should do so with complete transparency.

Through all of this the goal remains the same: to get the mine open and functioning as soon as possible, and without deals being made in secret.

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