Miners gather seeking bright spots

If you look around the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage next week, you wouldn’t believe there’s a slump in mining industry.

The Alaska Miners Association holds its annual convention and trade show Nov. 1-7 and the convention’s massive trade show will be of record size, taking all of the convention center’s vast ground floor and a share of the second floor.

About 1,000 people are expected at the convention, said AMA’s executive director Deantha Crockett. That’s about the same as last year.

The robust turnout belies the industry’s actual condition, which is down mainly because of low metals prices. A more somber mood will prevail compared with happier times, when gold prices were near $1,800 per ounce. They’ve been stuck at about $1,200 per ounce for an extended period.

However, people are still at work, some development-phase projects are still proceeding and the state’s seven operating mines are doing well. Even with those, capital budgets are tight and exploration budgets are very limited.

If there are brighter spots on the horizon one is that fuel costs are down, and energy is a big-ticket cost item for mines.

Another one, Crockett said, is that there appears to be a push-back developing on a national level against the encroachment of regulations by federal agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Act.

There are still problems in the regulatory environment, but an order by a federal judge halting, at least temporarily, the EPA’s new “waters of the United States” rule is a sign of hope.

“We’re starting to see a real examination of federal overreach, and it’s getting attention in Congress,” Crockett said.

The ongoing dispute over Pebble is another example. As more information comes out about how the EPA developed its plan for a preemption of mining in the Bristol Bay region, with agency staffers working secretly with opponents to mining, the worse the agency looks, she said.

At the convention itself, Crockett said the Tuesday luncheon talk on the state’s fiscal gap, by Northrim Bank president Joe Beedle and economist Mark Edwards, will be important. Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott will speak at noon Wednesday on Alaska-Canada transboundary issues, which affect mining projects in British Columbia that are near the Alaska border and which can affect watersheds in Alaska.

Wednesday is an all-day session on industrial safety, which is important in most industries. U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan will address the AMA’s annual banquet on that night.

On Thursday, four Alaska Native corporations, Sealaska Corp., Ahtna Inc., Doyon Ltd. and Eklutna Inc. will discuss mineral development on Native-owned lands.

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