It’s all about the AJ Mine

On Monday night, the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly Finance Committee approved moving toward revising the borough’s current mining ordinance. In doing so, it ignored the advice of City Manager Rorie Watt. That doesn’t inspire trust that the Assembly will genuinely consider any other opposing arguments. And neither does the assurances by supporters of the revision that this isn’t about reopening the AJ mine.

 

The proposal to revise the ordinance was made by five prominent business leaders last month. In the documents accompanying it, the first reason they listed was, “The current ordinance is a barrier to potential development on the AJ.”

On May 1, Assembly member Beth Weldon endorsed that point when she supported advancing the proposal to the Planning Commission. “We are losing government jobs and population and we need to diversify the economy,” she said, “and one of the ways is by opening AJ, and it’s also one of the priorities of this Assembly.”

Since then the smoke screen has gone up.

“Let’s be clear. There is no mining project being proposed,” Win Gruening wrote in the Empire a few days before Monday’s meeting. “Nor is there any project being considered.” And on Monday Weldon changed her tune. “No one’s even looking at AJ right now,” she claimed. “People are looking out the road” to mine prospects in the Herbert or Peterson River drainages.

That’s true. In 2010, Grande Portage Resources Ltd reported they found abundant evidence of “a complex mesothermal gold-quartz system with numerous targets” during their 2010 exploration at its Herbert Gold project. That’s part of the Juneau Gold Belt which includes the AJ. In March of this year, the Canadian company announced it had received regulatory approval to begin further drilling at Herbert. Assuming this next level of exploration confirms their initial findings, Grande Portage might be ready to begin the process of applying for a full mining permit.

One of the main objectives of the proposed ordinance revision is to make the permitting requirements for the AJ the same as they are at Herbert and throughout the rest of the borough. The timing seems intended to encourage Grande Portage to be thinking about prospects at both sites.

It’s even conceivable that the group who drafted the proposal has already spoken to Grande Portage. We don’t know, though, because they did their work behind closed doors.

The Assembly, however, needs to be fully transparent in this process. That doesn’t appear to be the case. Weldon should come clean about the contradiction between her statements regarding the AJ. Otherwise, we’re justified in our mistrust of their stated motives regarding the proposal.

The reference by one Assembly member that the organized opposition is trying “to force mob rule” made matters even worse. Passionate disagreement on reopening the AJ doesn’t make us “a large or disorderly crowd” or “the lower classes of a community.” Even if the intent wasn’t to apply either of those actual definitions, it conveyed the message that the majority is prepared to ignore a significantly informed segment of our community.

“Debate and disagreement are healthy,” Gruening wrote last September when he made a fine argument that the word divisive is often employed to “shut down legitimate criticism of policies or actions.” Like I did above, he went to Merriam-Webster and told us divisive means “causing a lot of disagreement between people and causing them to separate into different groups.”

As he pointed out, the different groups already exist. On this issue, he defined the two almost as if we’re not citizens of the same town — “mining critics” on one side opposed to “community efforts to streamline Juneau’s mining ordinance.”

How do we get to the healthy debate needed to reach a resolution we can all accept? The authors of the proposal should be prepared to explain in public why each provision of the current ordinance is an unnecessary and burdensome duplication of state and federal mining regulations. They and the Assembly must consider and respond to respectful rebuttals.

But before that, it would wise to follow Watt’s advice of having a six-month public education period “absent the pressure of an impending decision making process.” And that should start with both sides acknowledging it’s an exercise focused on whether or not to reopen the AJ Mine.

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