It is hard to believe that the Kensington Gold Project is really approaching construction. I am not certain when work began on permitting the project but I have personally been following it for more than a dozen years. During those years the project has changed significantly, and due in part to the various concerns raised by the community, has significantly improved both environmentally and economically.
At first the facilities were all on the Lynn Canal side of the mountain. The camp and mill facilities were as close as possible to the ore body and when you have to haul 4,000 tons of ore each day you want the haul distance to be as short as possible. At that time an onsite man camp and marine disposal of tailings were being proposed. Commercial fishermen from Haines and Juneau environmentalists raised concerns about marine disposal and after several years of studying underwater test plots made from ground mine rock, it was proven that the tailings were not a problem and essentially the same as the glacial silt coming down the nearby Lace and Berners Rivers. However, by the time the tailings study and the environmental impact statement were complete, the gold price had dropped to the point where the project was no longer economic.
Kensington management then regrouped and redesigned the project to use dry-stacked tailings rather than marine placement while continuing to site the man camp and mill on the Lynn Canal side. In the process they addressed various other concerns raised by environmentalists. A supplemental EIS was completed but not before the gold price had decreased further and the project was again shelved for the time being.
However, the real breakthrough came when Kensington management stood back and took another look at the project. They then realized that if the mill was on the Berners Bay side of the mountain several safety, environmental and cost improvements would be possible. Crews could come to work by bus and boat and there would be no need for a man camp and no need for helicopters operating in often marginal weather; a 20-acre lake (Lower Slate Lake) with an insignificant fishery could be greatly enhanced while at the same time eliminating the large footprint required for dry-stack tailings (113 acres) and a quarry for rock (55 acres) to cover the dry stack; mine production could be reduced to 2,000 tons per day but at a higher grade, resulting in less equipment, a smaller work force, and smaller facilities.
The latest design has resulted in an improved project and even though some folks may not like to admit it, the Juneau environmental groups can take a portion of the credit. They too have been involved in the project as long as I have. They have raised questions that the Kensington project has worked hard to address. This is in stark contrast to the recent situation at Pogo, where the Northern Alaska Environmental Center also participated in years of review but then in the end filed an appeal, thereby destroying their own credibility. NAEC showed their true colors, i.e., that they simply oppose all mining irrespective of how the mining company modified the project.
Steve Borell is executive director of the Alaska Miners Association.
Editor's note: The author wishes to note that he wrote this column before the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council announced it would sue the U.S. Forest Service over permitting the Kensington Mine.