Editor’s note: The Juneau City and Borough Assembly voted in favor of revising the Juneau mining ordinance last week on a vote of 6-3. The city manager had opposed revision of the nearly three-decade-old ordinance.
As mining critics gear up to oppose community efforts to streamline Juneau’s mining ordinance, they cite a lack of public process, loss of local control and the certain environmental degradation that will result. These doomsday scenarios are just a regurgitation of the very same arguments used whenever any kind of real economic development is proposed.
Let’s be clear. There is no mining project being proposed. Nor is there any project being considered. All that is being suggested is an examination of the current City and Borough of Juneau (CBJ) mining ordinance to determine if modifications to it would improve the probability of a future mining project that would help diversify and stabilize Juneau’s economy.
Under the current mining ordinance, which is unnecessarily duplicative, redundant and vague, no company would risk investing millions of dollars to explore their potential prospects — let alone navigate through the myriad of bureaucratic requirements necessary to secure all needed permits. That is precisely why mining opponents want to maintain the status quo.
The only two mines permitted since inception of this ordinance, the Kensington and Greens Creek, were subject to less onerous requirements because of their location off the road system.
Much is being made of the “arduous process” that resulted in the current mining ordinance in 1989 and how changes to it would “ignore a significant relevant segment” of Juneau’s population.
Conveniently, opposition to modifying the ordinance ignores that a similar public process will take place if the Assembly appoints a committee to review the ordinance for possible improvements. After all, much has changed over the last 28 years and it’s hypocritical to argue the public process is less valid today than in 1989.
The intent of the original ordinance was to supplement existing state and federal regulatory programs to address areas of local concern which those programs didn’t cover.
Unfortunately, the original drafters were unable to just stick to local concerns not already regulated. Instead, they created a local process that virtually duplicated the existing (state and federal) permitting system and included many additional requirements that are often vague and confusing.
It is totally unnecessary for CBJ staff to extensively review permits issued by responsible regulatory authorities when CBJ staff has no expertise in these areas. All this does is extend the application process, increase costs to the city and the applicant, and create a hodge-podge of conflicting interpretations that provide fertile ground for litigation. It’s easy to see why mining opponents want the current ordinance to remain unchanged.
For example, the CBJ staff review of a mine permit today includes a “determination whether air and water quality standards will be maintained in accordance with federal, state and city borough laws, rules and regulations.” Since there are no CBJ air and water quality standards, this would authorize staff to determine that federal or state air and water quality standards wouldn’t be met and to insert arbitrary staff-determined requirements into the CBJ permit.
While mining detractors continue to argue the current ordinance is being “gutted” and the public won’t have a say in shaping the conditions under which a mine would be permitted, that is not the case.
Regarding the possible reopening of the Alaska Juneau Mine, the CBJ (as part owner) would be party to the lease agreement establishing the initial conditions under which exploration and mining operation could occur. The federal and state permit processes offer additional opportunities for citizen participation. In fact, CBJ would participate in the federal National Environmental Policy Act process as well as other permits.
Under the revised ordinance, any mining project near Juneau population areas would continue to be subject to a Conditional Use Permit. This allows CBJ the final say on whether the project could proceed or not. It would also allow CBJ to add other conditions to address local concerns such as traffic, noise, dust, visual aspects, surface subsidence and erosion, for instance. Even the financial warranty determined by the Department of Environmental Conservation could be modified to allow for a higher amount if needed.
The conditional use permit would require, among other things, submission of all reports required by higher government agencies as well as reserve the right to modify or terminate CBJ’s permit depending on the significance of any change to a federal or state permit.
Opponents’ claims to the contrary, no environmental protections would be “rolled back” and our community would continue to have control over how any mining operation would occur.
As we look forward to increasingly diminished federal and state budgets, shouldn’t Juneau begin getting serious about offsetting our looming job and population losses?
We can only do this by working to attract environmentally responsible projects that add jobs and families to our community that would eventually stabilize 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.