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Friday, April 30, 2004

The Northern Center perspective on Pogo

The Northern Center perspective on Pogo
By Dan Adams
Apr 28, 2004, 11:30 PST

For every story that is reported by the media, several stories go untold. Here's one story that hasn't made headlines: The Northern Alaska Environmental Center says let's go ahead and build the Pogo mine. Yes, this from the nonprofit organization perhaps best known for campaigns to conserve Alaska's incomparable natural areas.

The NAEC recognizes the need for jobs and a viable economy in Interior Alaska. Any implication that NAEC wants to shut down the Pogo mine is false. Just build it in compliance with the law. That is the very least Alaskans ought to demand from Teck-Cominco, a foreign company that will profit so richly from our gold.

In that light, NAEC has accepted an invitation from Gov. Murkowski to work with state, federal and Teck-Cominco officials to find a solution to the wastewater pollution issues raised in the permit appeal.

The Clean Water Act was enacted more than 30 years ago, for good reasons. We believe that Alaskans, as people everywhere, prefer their rivers and streams free of arsenic and other toxic chemicals--especially those deposited by foreign financial interests who are paying back little or nothing for the privilege of extracting the state's resources. It is simply unacceptable that a mining company is allowed to use a stream as its unregulated private toxic waste dump.

In a recent op-ed piece, an official of the Department of Natural Resources missed the point when he stated, "The project cannot simply be redesigned to address NAEC's concerns. ... A four-year process, in which NAEC was a participant, determined that the current location was environmentally preferred." Our appeal addresses how wastewater from the mine is managed to ensure that the state's rivers are not contaminated, not the location of the mine or its waste-rock facilities.

As the state of Alaska and Teck-Cominco know full well, it is entirely possible to redirect Pogo Mine pollution away from rivers. It is standard mining industry practice to control and regulate the pollution runoff and seepage from mine waste dumps. It is done throughout the western United States, and it can be done here.

From the beginning, NAEC has tried to make sure its appeal would not raise a legal barrier to continued work on the project. When EPA informed us that sewage treatment for construction workers might be affected, we started working with EPA to resolve that problem and allow construction to proceed during the appeal. Why Teck-Cominco stopped all work on the mine while we were in the middle of addressing this problem is puzzling. Teck-Cominco has been operating without a permit (but in anticipation of getting one) since January. All indications are that necessary modifications can be made in the mine design to resolve the appeal. The NAEC is glad now to have the opportunity to discuss with the company and the agencies how we can resolve the wastewater issues and put the disputes behind us.

Properly managing discharges probably will cost money. But let us put things into perspective. Teck-Cominco is a foreign company that plans to extract 5.5 million ounces of gold worth more than $2 billion from the Goodpaster River drainage. Do you know who owns that gold? You do. It's on state land. Do you know how much of that $2 billion will go to help the state of Alaska with its budget troubles? Probably nothing, if past accounting practices from other large mines are any indication.

People get it when it comes to oil: We don't give that stuff away for free. The oil companies have to make a deal with us for our oil. And the state's interests are part of the deal. That's why income from oil accounts for 80 percent of the state's operating budget. And that's why you get a permanent fund dividend check. But somehow, when we talk about mineral extraction, we do not stand firm and demand our share. Instead, all of the proceeds will go directly to Teck-Cominco and its investors.

We at the Northern Alaska Environmental Center can't do much about how the state gives away the public's wealth. But we can keep an eye on the mining companies to make sure that they use some of the profits from developing our resources to comply with our laws. We hope that Teck-Cominco will use this opportunity to make this site a model for environmentally responsible mining.

Dan Adams is president of the board of directors of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.

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