By WIN GRUENING
The newly formed Assembly Mining Committee will accept public comments on the draft revision of Juneau’s mining ordinance at their March 1 meeting in City Hall Chambers, beginning at 5:30 pm.
As the committee begins its work, the economic benefits of the mining industry remain in the forefront.
The average annual salary at Greens Creek Mine on Admiralty Island is $122,000, from an aggregate payroll of almost $51 million for 414 direct jobs.
It is Juneau’s largest property tax payer at $1.7 million annually. Some 45 miles north of Juneau, the Kensington gold mine, with 367 employees, has similarly impressive numbers.
The mining committee was established in response to a group of local businessmen that believes current municipal regulation is a barrier to potential development of new mining projects. The group contends that duplication of permitting processes in state and federal law, along with unnecessary requirements and vague and undefined language in municipal code discourage investment.
Meeting for the first time last July, the committee recently finalized its organizational structure and membership. The committee is made up of seven voting members – three members of the Assembly: Norton Gregory (Chair), Maria Gladziszewski, and Beth Weldon; two Planning Commissioners: Ben Haight and Paul Voelckers; and two public members: Roman Motyka and John Kato.
The first meeting attended by all members was held on Jan. 3. Committee deliberations, public participation, and final recommendations are expected to be complete by May.
Thus far the committee hasn’t made substantive changes but proposed a reorganization and clarification of the code’s provisions. Hopefully, this will lead to eliminating the burden on applicants to provide duplicative information.
But more changes are being considered. And while these changes are being characterized by mining opponents as “gutting” the ordinance, this isn’t the case.
No environmental protections would be “rolled back” and our community would continue to have control over how any mining operation would occur.
Under any revised ordinance, large mining projects near Juneau population areas would continue to be subject to a conditional use permit. This allows the city and borough the final say on whether the project could proceed. Juneau could add other conditions addressing local concerns such as traffic, noise, dust, visual aspects, surface subsidence, and erosion, for instance.
There are three major areas of the existing mining ordinance needing modification. They are the requirement for (1) a socioeconomic study (2) a mitigation agreement and (3) financial warranties.
None of these requirements were municipal conditions of the opening of the Greens Creek Mine or the Kensington Mine. Indeed, no other industry is subject to all these requirements even though some impacts may be similar.
Federal and state regulators of mining projects require financial warranties and mitigation measures and any EPA environmental impact study would consider socioeconomic impacts. CBJ code revisions should allow approved state and federal permits as evidence of “de facto” compliance with these requirements.
While any new business, its employees, and support vendors exert some short-term pressure on municipal services and housing stock, the history of the Greens Creek Mine and Kensington Mine prove mining projects are extremely beneficial to our economy and can be developed and operated with appropriate environmental safeguards.
In evaluating “people” impacts on our community, there is no logical distinction between 200 mine workers and their families coming to Juneau versus adding 200 new government jobs – except that economic benefits are greater with mining jobs. So why discriminate against mining companies and their employees? What is the sense in discouraging valuable mining projects here through extra requirements that impose unnecessary studies and duplicative bonding and mitigation measures?
Organizations such as the Juneau Chamber of Commerce and Southeast Conference have already endorsed modifications to the ordinance. But these changes also need to be supported by the general public. You can help by attending the meeting on March 1.
Citizen input is vital to reinforce to our elected assembly members the importance of diversifying our economy. This is an opportunity to attract environmentally responsible projects that add jobs, families and demographic stability to our community – thereby strengthening our schools, our local businesses, and our municipal tax base.
Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations.