Juneau should keep local control over mines

  • By Larri Irene Spengler
  • Tuesday, March 13, 2018 6:54am
  • Opinion

Should Juneau give up the opportunity to condition mining to address local concerns? (That sounds like a trick question.) Of course not!

Not surprisingly, most folks who spoke recently on this issue believe we should maintain the ability to protect local values.

Recently, the city committee reviewing possible changes to the mining ordinance took public testimony. (This committee had been created last year after a group of mining advocates proposed basically gutting the ordinance.) The majority of the speakers — as well as those who sent letters or emails — were in favor of leaving untouched the substantive content of the ordinance, which had been carefully crafted through an inclusive, participatory process.

The committee was considering the city attorney’s draft that reorganizes the ordinance for clarity. Most of the commenters supported the draft because it did not modify the meaning of the current provisions, which give the city the option of setting conditions.

And certainly the city should retain the ability to decide for itself what it deems needful for protecting residents’ interests, with regard to each socioeconomic, environmental, logistical — indeed, every potential — impact of the opening of a large mine.

Some impacts of a large mine might be regulated by other entities, like water and air quality. But in these days of tightening budgets for Alaska’s state government, and of dramatic shifts in priorities for federal agencies under the Trump Administration, Juneau should keep the ability to impose conditions on all such aspects of mining, in case the relevant state or federal agencies are unable — or unwilling — to take the necessary steps.

Other potential impacts would not be regulated by any entity, unless the city maintains its authority to oversee them. It is with this in mind that the ordinance provides for a socio-economic study — a component that some mining advocates assert should be dropped.

How shortsighted that would be!

Suppose for a moment that a new, large mine opens in Juneau. This would happen quite suddenly — not gradually like, say, the build up of tourism-related businesses. It would also almost certainly end relatively abruptly when it was no longer financially viable, rather than winding down bit by bit.

The influx (and later, the departure) of many employees and their families would affect the lives of Juneau residents (including those new residents) in many ways. Daycare is already hard to find; it would almost certainly become more difficult to locate good childcare. What about the current lack of affordable housing? That seems like it might only get worse. Would property taxes rise? Would the increase in population put a strain on our public transportation system? Would the situation of our homeless population change? What about traffic congestion? How would the ever-filling landfill keep up?

These kinds of impacts would not be examined by any agency. Think about it. DEC would look at environmental matters. Fish and Game would look at things like the health of fish populations. No entity — other than Juneau itself, through the mining ordinance — would look at and could require mitigation for the effects of a large mine on the social and economic fabric of our community.

Without a socio-economic study as part of the framework of a large mine permit application, the city will not have the information it would need to make accurate evaluations and to craft appropriate permit conditions and mitigation measures.

So in the mining ordinance, the city needs to keep the option to step in if the appropriate state or federal agency does not sufficiently protect Juneau’s interests — and maybe most especially when there is no other entity that oversees certain types of possible impacts.

It only makes sense for Juneau to retain the authority to decide what is acceptable from the perspective of this community for a mine to open, to operate, and eventually to close. We should all urge the city not to give up that power!

• Larri Irene Spengler grew up in Delta Junction, lived in Anchorage for five years after college and law school, and has lived in Juneau for 35 years.

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