Haines doctors oppose mine, cite health risks

The sun sets over the Chilkat Range on Oct. 7, 2016 near Haines, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

All four Haines medical doctors said that they oppose mine development in a letter to the local paper. Some residents who support mining say that makes them feel unwelcome at the clinic. The doctors said that was not the intent.

There is no mine near Haines yet, but if Constantine North Inc. develops one, it expects to offer more than 250 full-time jobs.

Local doctors said that an influx of workers could burden the health system. They cited a locally-commissioned report “The Social Costs of Mining on Rural Communities” that links higher rates of alcoholism, drug use, depression, and violent crime to mine-dependent communities.

“To me, what they’re saying is totally wrong,” said Jerry Lapp.

He said he isn’t trying to censor anybody, but he wants a second opinion.

“That report is totally reflecting the opposite of what I have seen living here for 40-some years. The best times Haines had was when people were here working, spending money,” Lapp said.

He said the doctors’ professional opinions are offensive to the mining community. He doesn’t want to see it impact health care.

“If I work for a mining company, am I gonna be treated different in there? If they’re thinking this way?” he said.

The doctors said that’s not the case at all.

“Oh, absolutely not,” said Dr. Greg Higgins. “I mean, that’s almost insulting.”

He is one of the four doctors in Haines. He said the idea isn’t to single out an industry.

“It’s potentially a public health issue,” he said. “I’ve seen it in any type of booming economy where there’s an influx of a tremendous amount of people looking to get wealthy. You see this in other industries and it has to do with just the boom aspect of it, it is not restricted to just mining.”

Higgins said he and his colleagues aren’t speaking on behalf of their employer, Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, or SEARHC.

SEARHC  is the only medical clinic in the borough. It has not taken a stance on the potential mine. But, it apologized on behalf of the doctors.

“It’s bringing up emotions in regards to healthcare and we certainly do apologize for that,” said SEARHC Marketing and Communications Director Maegan Bosak.

She said the health group supports community engagement on the part of their employees. Bosak said there are more constructive ways to do it, but didn’t name any examples.

“We’ll leave that to the employees,” she said.

Constantine’s Vice President of Community & External Affairs Liz Cornejo said the study lacks data from Alaska mines, but she wants to take a step back.

“Certainly there are aspects of the report I think are flawed, but I think the intentions of commissioning the report were good in wanting to engage on the topic,” she said.

She and the physicians agree on at least one thing, they would both like to see more community discussion.

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