On Wednesday, the EPA granted Coeur Alaska the final wastewater discharge pollution permit it needed to begin building its Kensington gold mine near Alaska’s capital city, Juneau.

For background, see:

Planet Ark

Juneau Empire (more complete, but free registration required)

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An unfortunate rule change in 2002 that redefined Kensington’s particular type of mine-tailings as “fill” allowed the permit to move forward. Coeur Alaska plans to dump its tailings into a nearby freshwater lake.While many locals are vehemently opposed to the mine, for mostly environmental reasons, and because of its proximity to spectacular, undeveloped Berner’s Bay, many others welcome the mine as an economic boon to the community. The Kensington website claims the mine to be “environmentally unrivaled,” and from an insider’s perspective, the exhaustively researched and revised environmental measures that are now in the current mine plan could be seen as the epitome of sustainability.

As a person whose thinking is on the environmental end of the spectrum, my green-alert Klaxon is sounding, and my enviro-outrage is mounting quickly at this recent development; I was born and raised in Juneau, and I know how sad this change to Berner’s Bay will be. I also realize the dangerous precedent this EPA permit will set for mining operations nationwide. However, as a local, I admit mixed feelings with regard to the mine, in spite of the inevitable accusations of “greenwashing” and “sophistry” that will surely ensue.

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On one hand, Juneau is a small, isolated town in the middle of the Tongass National Forest. As the capital of Alaska, almost 50 percent of the town’s employment is in government, and the only other major industry is tourism (see Emily Gertz’s post about glaciers and my comments). Juneau has been trying to diversify its economy for some time, not in small part due to several recent attempts to move the capital somewhere closer to Anchorage, which would obviously have devastating economic impacts. The Kensington mine certainly has the potential to add diversity and to bring a lot of revenue to local businesses and the city, which in turn could fund more economic diversification, public education, etc. Furthermore, this “environmentally unrivaled” mine could help set precedents in sustainability practices within the mining industry, since mining is not going to go away tomorrow.

On the other, greener hand, a mine is a mine, and “sustainability” should probably never be used in the same sentence, or paragraph even. The economic advantages of the mine are at best temporary, with a planned operational duration of ten years, potentially creating a boom-bust situation. People who undyingly support the mine are seeing fast cash and aren’t looking very far ahead. Plus, it’s hard to say how much mine profit will actually stay in Juneau, and how much will go straight to the Coeur d’Alene Mining Corporation, which owns mines worldwide.

Juneau has a long history of gold mining, right from the time of its founding at the beginning of the 20th century. At one time, the nearby Treadwell Mine was the biggest gold-mining operation in the world, and years later the AJ Mine was also very large. The environmental effects in the Juneau region from these past operations are still poorly documented and understood. As I now witness this new mining development from afar, my only hope is that if it proceeds, as it most likely will, the environmental, economic, and social impacts of the Kensington project will be sufficiently documented, from beginning to end, so that the effects of mining will be better understood by the general public, and perspectives may eventually change.