The Haines Borough Assembly is wrestling with an issue that is bound to be controversial: Mining in the Chilkat Valley.
Some Assembly members have an idea about how to stop a proposed mine in its tracks: They want to place a ban on water or liquid storage — tailings ponds and the like — within a mile of the Chilkat River.
Their target is the yet-to-be permitted Constantine Mine, also known as the Palmer Project, some 35 miles north of Haines in steep terrain.
The Canadian company that owns the land has been exploring for several years on what is federal and state mining land. The company is banking its investment on an underground mine for high-grade copper, zinc, gold, silver, and barite in 200 million year old volcanic mineral deposits. This is a project that involves 340 federal unpatented mining claims across nearly 7,000 acres, and another 63 state mineral claims across another 9,200 acres. There’s also Mental Health Trust land adjacent and involved in the project scope.
Local environmentalists are alarmed they could have an underground mine in their own backyard and they worry about mining waste leaching into the Chilkat River, where it could harm salmon, steelhead, and the bald eagles, bears, and humans who eat from the river.
Haines Borough Ordinance 19-04-529 would add language that would make it “unlawful for any person, association, corporation, or other entity to operate an aqueous storage facility which handles hazardous materials, waste, or substances within one mile of any surface body of water.”
That seems pretty clear.
But can a borough ban a mine on state and federal land? Assemblymen Will Prisciandaro wants to try. His ordinance, which was written with help from environmental activist Gershon Cohen, is being debated in the borough’s Government Affairs and Services Committee.
At a recent committee meeting, Borough manager Debra Schnabel asked the obvious question: If what Assembly members are trying to do is to ban the mine, why not just ban the mine?
“Why is this not an ordinance that simply says the Haines Borough does not want a tailings dam, and a commercial mine? If that’s what this is about, then let’s just say that,” said Schnabel, in an effort to be transparent. Her family is involved in mining locally, but at a smaller scale.
“I think actually that we can’t do that, because it’s against the law,” said Assembly Member Heather Lende, revealing that the ordinance is a thinly veiled mining ban. It’s a workaround to what is illegal. You can hear the exchange below:
The Haines Assembly now faces an additional problem — the fact that Assembly members know they are trying to make legal what has already been ruled illegal in previous court cases where local governments tried to ban mines.
Trying to thread the needle on the legality of a local ban on all mining is lawsuit bait.
In 2011, the State of Alaska sued the Lake and Peninsula Borough over an ordinance that required a borough permit for mining operations larger than 640 acres. Although based on a different set of facts, the decision went against the borough due to the inability of a local government to supersede the State’s authority in management of natural resources on its land.
Haines is a town that was built on mining, with a history that goes back to 1898, when gold miners came during the Gold Rush and started mining in the Porcupine Mining District. Three years later, the Porcupine townsite had a post office and was a hive of activity, with a recording office up and running. Haines was known for having one of the largest highline mining flumes in North America and was producing 76,000 ounces of gold prior to World War II. Today, that gold would be worth $90 million.
Some Americans know Haines only as a mining town due to the Discovery Channel TV series “Gold Rush,” which features the Schnabel family.
Prisciandaro has gotten both support and pushback on the ordinance from a community that runs hot and cold on every issue, a town where nothing gets a tepid response. Some have thanked him. Others have expressed caution. Several are outraged.
“The scramble now is to carve out all the exemptions supporters can think of that might effect every household, industry, or other activity except a mine,” wrote one citizen on a local Facebook page, Haines Front & Center. “Apparently it’s OK for everyone to store hazardous material, as long as it’s not a mine. If passed, this poorly conceived ordinance is sure to cost the taxpayers money and have major unintended consequences.”
In a letter to the Assembly, one citizen advised the government to slow down and think of those consequences:
“Has the borough considered how much this affects businesses other than Constantine Mining? I believe more study needs to be done before the borough can begin to consider this ordinance,” citizen Linda Palmer wrote.
When the business community expressed alarm at the broad scope of the ordinance, the maker of the ordinance quickly developed a list of exemptions:
Fuel oil would be exempt. Although obviously a toxic liquid, the ordinance would be a disaster if it impacted heating oil or gasoline for cars.
All borough facilities would also be exempt. Why? Because, according to the maker of the ordinance, the borough is not profit driven. It’s there to help the people.
Prisciandaro went on to clarify that the ordinance was not specific to an industry, but would also apply to storage or herbicides, wastewater, leaches, solvents, and pesticides.
“My hope is that the passing of this environmental regulation will help protect the waters of the borough from any potentially large disaster in the future,” he wrote.
Then he amended it again, to add an ethanol exemption. And to increase the amount allowed to 5,000 gallons.
Someone raised the issue of septic systems. Was human excrement in a drain field considered storage of aqueous material? Is a private swimming pool exempted? Can people not have ponds on their property to use for water for farming irrigation or watering animals?
How about refrigerants used at the Excursion Inlet fish packing facility?
Would approval of the ordinance require the city to set up its own small department of environmental conservation to regulate liquid storage? Can a town of 1,700 and a modest economy afford such a department?
Finally, the ordinance came to the attention of the Associated General Contractors, a heavy construction trade association that wrote the ordinance could have “a devastating impact on businesses and on the economy of Haines as it will curtail construction operations, mining and gravel extraction operations within most of the Haines Borough.”
In a stern letter, the group warned, “The State and Federal environmental regulations we comply with are already stringent enough to provide all the necessary protection that the Haines Borough might need. Due to the topography in the Chilkat Valley there is clearly no place where these operations could continue and remain in compliance with this proposed ordinance. This ordinance will shut down existing operations and severely restrict the area available for potential future developments for gravel extraction and mining, while adding significant costs to public projects if staging and storage of necessary materials will have to be remote from such projects.”
To date, the maker of the ordinance has not contacted the Constantine Mine or any of its representatives to learn how an ordinance targeting their business would impact it, Must Read Alaska has learned. But considering Constantine is the target of the ordinance, it may not surprise readers that the company has not been given a courtesy call.
The ordinance is still in the Government and State Services Committee, which will meet next on July 2 at 6:30 pm. Haines, a community that tends to split down the middle on every major issue — from backcountry helicopters to cruise ships to timber leases — may have struck gold for its latest community argument.