Mining boosters, environmentalists dig in over Juneau’s mining regulations

This public domain photo shows the Alaska Juneau Gold Mine and Mill along Gold Creek. (Photo by Arthur C. Spencer, USGS Bulletin 287, The Juneau Gold Belt, Alaska, via Wikimedia Commons)This public domain photo shows the Alaska Juneau Gold Mine and Mill along Gold Creek. (Photo by Arthur C. Spencer, USGS Bulletin 287, The Juneau Gold Belt, Alaska, via Wikimedia Commons)
This photo from a 1906 U.S. Geological Survey bulletin shows the Alaska-Juneau Gold Mine and Mill along Gold Creek. (Public domain photo by Arthur C. Spencer/USGS)

Juneau should revisit mining as a future economic engine. That’s the pitch making the rounds by a group of well-connected businessmen and former political operatives. But their proposal to streamline the city’s mining review process has environmentalists on guard.

Bill Corbus is the former owner of Alaska Electric Light and Power Company, which co-owns the former Alaska-Juneau Mine property. He told a packed chamber of commerce luncheon that there’s nothing to announce.

“There is absolutely nothing going on that I’m aware of as far as a proposal to reopen the A-J Mine or any new mine,” Corbus said.

Why the disclaimer? Any plan to restart gold mining would be controversial.

Before it closed in 1944, the Alaska-Juneau Mine was among the largest of its kind. There have been plans to reopen the A-J in the past. In the mid-1980s Echo Bay Mines invested $100 million to restart mining here.

It didn’t end well.

MACC's Bill Corbus and Jim Clark
Bill Corbus, left, and Jim Clark are among the group of mining boosters that want the city’s mining regulations streamlined. (File photo by Matt Miller/KTOO News)

In 1994, there was a mass fish die-off in Gold Creek. There were lawsuits. A federal investigation found that the company allowed oil, grease and even sewage to leach into the watershed.

No charges were filed. But Echo Bay paid a $250,000 fine to the state. The price of gold then dropped, and the Canadian company pulled out in 1997.

Frank Bergstrom was Echo Bay’s environmental compliance officer. Today he’s the treasurer of a pro-business group called First Things First Alaska Foundation. He argues that the mining sector could help reverse economic decline in the capital city, which lost at least 300 jobs in the past year.

“What we have is an opportunity, we want to sell that opportunity and the Juneau government has an asset,” Bergstrom said in an interview. “It’s incumbent on the government of Juneau to see that asset developed for the benefit of the citizens. Yep, there’s gold in the ground. How much? Someone’s got to come and look.”

Bergstrom helped write a revised ordinance to make Juneau more mine friendly by cutting the existing mining ordinance from 17 pages to a lean 3 1/2.

“I looked at from the point of view of layers that took out process but didn’t change the environmental requirements,” said Jim Clark, a Juneau attorney and former chief of staff for Gov. Frank Murkowski. “What we’re primarily taking out of here is a CBJ staff review of whether the state and federal regulators properly issued the federal and state permits.”

The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council held a bonfire at the Auke Rec Picnic Site to discuss the pro-mining initiative. The group says it’s concerned the ordinance would undercut local authority and remove the required socioeconomic impact study for new mines.

“This isn’t about being for or against mining. It’s about wanting to make sure that anything we do is smart,” said Buck Lindekugel, the group’s staff attorney. “The proposal that’s gone forward has been — in my opinion — to put the borough’s arm behind its back. Not give it all the tools it needs to make a good decision for the Assembly for the planning commission — whoever makes the decision.”

Support for revising the mining ordinance has been received warmly by some members of the Juneau Assembly. But a motion to forward it to the planning commission failed. It’s scheduled to resurface at the Assembly’s June 12 meeting.