Juneau After the Gold Rush

Fighting Dangerous Development

by Caryl Boehnert

JUNEAU, ALASKA - "Mine it, drill it, hunt it, cut it" has become Alaska's development philosophy. No entity reflects that philosophy more clearly than the state's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which is now headed by John Sandor, the former chair of Alliance for Juneau's Future, an Alaskan pro-mining organization. The DEC is proposing weakened water pollution regulations which agency personnel admit are designed to allow pulp mills and mining companies to operate more cheaply. Critics, who have begun to call the DEC the "Department of Economic Collusion," charge that, in attempting to change the regulations to favor non-sustainable extractive industries like mining over other more sustainable ones, such as fishing and tourism, the DEC has abandoned its mission of protecting the environment and human health.

Development at any cost

 Along with natural beauty and variety of wildlife, Southeast Alaska contains a wealth of minerals, a fact not lost on developers. Mining companies have 66 mines on the drawing board for Southeast Alaska and western Canada , and the Juneau Land Plan and the U.S. Forest Service consider mineral extraction their highest development priority. Watchdog groups, however, question the wisdom of fostering more mining when mines currently operating in Alaska have such poor environmental records. "The Red Dog mine in northwestern Alaska had 134 violations of effluent limitations and 28 separate violations for failing to report these violations. The Greens Creek Mine near Juneau has been cited for 81 violations of [its] permit and continues to operate out of compliance," says Peter Enticknap, head of the Lynn Canal Conservation, an environmental group opposing mines in this area. "Heavy metals are accumulating; indigenous Alaskans report that bottom fish and crabs are no longer found near the outfall; mine workers report that spills at the loading dock are not reported. We are told to have faith in our government, but what has really happened? The mining industry in America has poisoned over 12,000 miles of rivers and streams and 180,000 surface acres of lakes and reservoirs."

 Environmentalists, residents and fishers are particularly concerned about two proposed mines near the Alaskan capital of Juneau, which are viewed by the industry as precedent-setters for the 64 other mines waiting to follow them into the area. Echo Bay Mines of Canada is attempting to reopen the historic Alaska-Juneau (AJ) mine, one of the world's largest gold mines, located four miles from downtown Juneau. In conjunction with Coeur d'Alene Mines of Idaho, Echo Bay is also attempting to open the Kensington Gold Mine, 45 miles north of Juneau. Since 1989, Echo Bay has insisted that mining will cause no serious harm to the land, the lucrative fisheries at the site of the outfalls or Juneau's drinking water supply.

Citizens groups, environmentalists and some state agencies disagree. In its criticism of an environmental impact statement for the AJ mine prepared by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Department of Fish and Wildlife expresses "major concerns about the proposed AJ mine's impacts on fish, wildlife and their habitats." However, the governor's office seems to have ignored the agency's statement, having voiced state support for the reopening of the AJ mine.

 Juneau citizens are divided about the mine. With oil revenues dwindling and state jobs being cut, many fear an impending economic crisis. For them, the promise of economic diversity - with less reliance on revenue derived as a "government town" - sounds attractive. However, many traditional supporters of mining are siding against the AJ mine because of its construction problems, its proximity to downtown Juneau and the poor environmental track record of Echo Bay at other facilities. "When it [starts] threatening [the] drinking water supply, you have to get involved," says Gail Bills, a member of Alaskans for Juneau, a group formed to stop the AJ mine. "If you really look at what they are proposing for the aquifer, you see that we are talking a lot of months where there [won't be] enough water for the city to use for fire-fighting and drinking. And the danger of pollution from spills and heavy metals is incredible."

 David Stone, manager of public relations for Echo Bay, says, "We believe that this is one of the most environmentally sensitive mining projects anywhere in the world. More studies have been done on these mines than any project in Alaska, with the exception of the pipeline. That should give environmentalists a lot of comfort."

 Many mining proponents dismiss environmental concerns on the grounds that Juneau was built on mining, and that the old AJ Mine did not leave damage. "Thirty percent of downtown Juneau sits on past AJ tailings," says Stone. "The old mine operated without environmental controls for 50 years without harm." But Laurie Ferguson Craig, a former placer and hardrock miner and president of the board of Alaskans for Juneau, disagrees. "There are plenty of places in Juneau where there are large hazardous waste sites from mining chemicals, and nothing is going to grow there for the next hundred years." Moreover, she adds, "Times have changed since mining began in Juneau in the late 1800s. Now they're talking about processing 22,500 tons of ore per day, using 18 tons per day of cyanide to leach the gold from the ore."

 The mine tailings (waste) from the AJ operation would contain heavy metals, including copper, lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic, and residue from the cyanide; and would be dumped behind a proposed dam in what is now Sheep Creek Valley, a popular hiking and fishing spot. David Dorris, former project manager for the BLM, the agency responsible for drafting the environmental impact statement, admitted in July 1992 that "everything in Sheep Creek will be destroyed" if the AJ mine is reopened.

 Wastewater from the mine (31 million gallons of it a day) would pour into Gastineau Channel, the waterway leading to Juneau, and home to humpback whales and salmon fisheries. Wastewater from the mine would not meet state or federal water quality standards without dilution in the channel, in effect turning the channel into a "mixing zone." Enticknap from Lynn Canal Conservation explains, "A mixing zone is a legalized pollution zone: it lets the mining company use the channel as an industrial sewer with a pollution zone buried under water where its impacts can't be seen or properly monitored." Mining company officials assert that fisheries would not be damaged, however, even with millions of gallons of waste pouring from the mine through the wastepipe each day.

Disregarding residents

 The costs of state development schemes to area residents are vast, and are compounded by the physical demands of life in Southeast Alaska. Juneau is literally built into the mountainsides of the Coast Range, and expansion is blocked by the Gastineau Channel in one direction and the mountains and a glacial icefield in the other. Housing, therefore, is at a premium; available land is scarce and new construction has dwindled since the 1988 recession. Vacancy rates in Juneau hover between 1.5 and 2 percent. When the legislature pours into town in January, the rate drops as low as .5 percent. The BLM estimates in its final environmental impact statement for the AJ that the mine would bring 1,600 people into town; they would need 570 units of housing (or 973 units for both AJ and Kensington), according to the BLM estimate. But the agency stops short of indicating where these units will be found. Echo Bay refused to agree to build housing to meet the obvious demand as part of the large mine permit negotiations for the Kensington. Instead, it negotiated an agreement with the city that requires the company to merely make its "best effort" to locate additional housing for those who need it. John Egan, of Housing First, an organization which works for the construction of low-income housing, states, "Whenever companies like this move in, they are not providing housing for the low- or even the middle-income family; and when the company leaves, there's no way people with limited means can afford to buy the upper-income homes that were built."

 W. Thomas Goerold, an economic consultant to the Southeast Alaskan National Resources Center, predicts that a boom-and-bust economy will emerge should the mines come to town. "If you don't want to live here long, then it's great: let your property values rise and then sell and get out, because the market is going to crash when the mines leave. Of course, if this is your home, and you want to stay here, then the news isn't so good."

 Kensington Mine: proposing disaster

 Due in part to the avalanche of negative public reaction to the anticipated problems at the AJ, the BLM did not issue its final environmental impact statement until May 1992. Echo Bay's other gold mine, the smaller but richer Kensington Mine, was rushed through public informational hearings, and the Forest Service issued its environmental impact statement on the mine in February 1992. By then, fishing, Native, environmental and citizens groups had drawn together to form the Kensington Coalition, which opposes the mine as currently proposed. A pamphlet put out by the Coalition estimates that mining operations will involve "milling 4,000 tons of ore a day, using cyanide processing to obtain the gold, and creating a half-mile-wide earthen dam to contain wet tailings."

Fishers cite concerns about the welfare of the $42 million per year fishery at Point Sherman where Kensington's proposed wastewater outfall would be located. Warns the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "If contaminants are not swept away from the Point Sherman area during the summer fishing season, they may cause a shift in the migration route of adult salmon. Due to the nature of the Point Sherman commercial fishery, even a small deviation could have a significant adverse impact on the anadromous fish [those swimming upstream to spawn] and their harvest." Echo Bay has long dismissed the idea that any harm could come to fish in the region of the outfall. Frank Bergstrom, the mine's environmental compliance manager, cites studies conducted for Echo Bay in which salmon were exposed to heavy concentrations of pollutants and seem to show no effect: "So far," he says, "the fish exposed to heavy metals are perky little guys." The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, however, warns of the longterm effects to the fishery over many years and opposes the idea of a mixing zone.

 Traditionally, Juneau's fishing community has not opposed mining projects, but the audacity of Echo Bay's proposals has galvanized the area's fishers. Fishing, Alaska's second largest industry (after oil and gas), "stands to lose one of Southeast's richest fisheries for a 10 to 13-year mining project that will just leave pollution and a faulty dam when it's done," Leon Woodrow, an independent fisher, testified before the Alaska Coastal Management Consistency Review panel. "We have to obey rules from DEC when we're out there fishing: we're just asking that the mines be required to obey rules in order to operate, too. And if you don't follow the rules, you don't operate - it's as simple as that." Adds Sissi Babiche, another fisher speaking before the same panel, "There seems to be two sets of rules: one for the common [person] and one for big business."

Allying with the 15,000-member United Fishermen of Alaska are Native groups, community groups like Alaskans for Juneau and environmental groups such as Southeast Alaska Conservation Council and the Juneau Chapter of the Audubon Society. During the summer months, when most of the fishers were out on the water, the Coalition testified on their behalf at hearings against lowering the water quality standards and against the Kensington mine. By fall, Coalition members had adopted a clear platform stating what is acceptable and unacceptable for a proposed mine; and were conferring regularly with attorneys at the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (SCLDF).

 Juneau has one of the strongest mining ordinances in the country, designed to protect "the health, safety, and welfare of the residents of the City and Borough of Juneau (CBJ)." The city's Planning Commission held over 18 months of hearings, culminating in an intense 12-week series in the fall of 1992, to decide whether to grant a large mine permit for Kensington to Echo Bay and its partner, Coeur d'Alene.

The CBJ's own engineering staff indicated in reports to the Commission that all was not well with the Kensington mine, labeling Echo Bay's reclamation plan (which shows how the area will be "reclaimed" after mine operations are shut down) insufficient in meeting the requirements set forth in the mining ordinance. A CBJ engineer flatly stated that the "tailings dam as designed will fail after mine closure," posing risk to workers and presenting the danger of spills of untreated toxic wastewater into the fisheries of Lynn Canal. The Kensington Coalition presented evidence that the tailings pond had been planned in the path of an avalanche chute; the city's engineer voiced concern about the stability of the dam should it be tested by avalanche or landslide, or deluged with sedimentation.

The Coalition testified on Echo Bay's record of repeated cyanide spills in Nevada, including one spill of 579 pounds of cyanide in 16,000 gallons of solution, and violation of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations at the nearby Greens Creek Mine. Fishers testified about the water currents at Point Sherman, and claimed that Echo Bay had incorrectly placed monitoring devices and thus falsely measured the "flushing" of the area and the period of time in which fish might be exposed to toxic pollutants from the outfall.

 For the most part, the state government has chosen to side with the mining industry and ignore the citizen coalition's careful arguments against mining-at-any-cost policies. Faced with unanimous public testimony, including public agency reports, against the prospect of creating a mixing zone, the planning commission chose to defer decisions about water quality and the mixing zone until late spring and to issue the permit without these vital issues settled. The Commission also decided that it would not require Echo Bay and Coeur d'Alene to furnish proof that they could design a tailings dam that would not fail in the wet, avalanche-prone terrain of Southeast, but would instead make it a condition of the permit that some such design be found.

The commission granted Kensington a large mine permit in November 1992, despite its lack of a viable reclamation plan, faulty dam design and the questionable socioeconomic plans of its operating companies, and with the water quality and mixing zone issues unresolved. Even so, Barbara Sheinberg, chair of the planning commission, indicated that she felt that enough safeguards and stringent conditions had been built into the permit to protect the city. Others did not share her faith; the permit was appealed in late November by the Kensington Coalition.

Additionally, in December 1992 the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund sent a 60-day notice letter to the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers on behalf of the Coalition, after both agencies, early in the process, stated that they would not be responsible for regulating proposed tailings ponds in the two mines. The SCLDF letter charged that the Corps and EPA, under the Clean Water Act, could not avoid this responsibility; and notified them that they had 60 days to respond before a citizens' suit could be filed. There has been no response thus far.

 In January 1993, the AJ large mine permit hearings began before the planning commission, although no verdict has yet been reached on the Kensington appeal. Avenues of appeal in state and federal courts exist for both mines, should money and legal expertise become available.

But to those fighting the mines, the issues go beyond winning tougher standards at the AJ or the Kensington mines. They are challenging the state government's development-at-any-cost mentality which promises a forbidding future for Southeast Alaska. Laurie Ferguson Craig of Alaskans for Juneau observes, "The same way of thinking that led to the Exxon Valdez is here once again."