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By Sarah Hurst
For Mining News 

Alaska Legislature solidly supports Kensington

Resolution encourages mining company Coeur to continue high-profile legal battle with environmentalists over tailings disposal plan


Last updated 5/27/2007 at Noon

After removing a strongly worded criticism of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Alaska's House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution encouraging Coeur d'Alene Mines to pursue all legal avenues that would enable it to proceed with developing Kensington gold mine near Juneau. Construction of the mine's tailings facility has been halted by a pending ruling from the 9th Circuit Court in favor of a coalition of environmental groups. The Senate also passed the resolution with a vote of 17-2.

The author of House Joint Resolution 17, Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, was disappointed that the House voted 21-18 to amend the resolution, taking out what some called "inflammatory" language about the 9th Circuit Court. The issue provoked a debate on the House floor, unlike the resolution itself, which passed with very few questions asked. The controversial sentence read: "The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has demonstrated a pattern of anti-development decision-making that has injured the people of this state, and it is anticipated that the court will continue that pattern into the foreseeable future."

Apart from the fact that it is impossible to foresee what the court will do in the future, as some legislators pointed out, it also isn't a good idea to antagonize judges who are making important decisions about Alaska, the amendment's supporters said. The amendment was originally passed by the House Resources Committee; then the resolution moved to the House Judiciary Committee, where the sentence about the 9th Circuit Court was put back into the resolution.

Rep. Jay Ramras, R-Fairbanks, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, defended the original resolution during the House floor debate May 10. "Frankly, we supported the stronger language directed towards the 9th Circuit Court, which has a stranglehold on the resource development in the state of Alaska," Ramras said.

Gruenberg: 'very serious accusation'

"If we were to make these statements about another member of the House, if I were to accuse you, on the floor of the House, of having an anti-development mentality and not being fair and impartial in the way you carry out your duties, the Rules chair would be on his feet in an instant," said Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage. "That's a very serious accusation. ... A judge could basically be thrown off the bench if that could be proven. By the same token, you're sending this to the chief judge of the 9th Circuit, and you're accusing her and her colleagues of unethical conduct. Do you think that's going to help your case?"

"You don't pick a war with somebody that has unlimited paper and ink" when a newspaper writes something about you that you don't like, said Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Kodiak. "Why do something that is going to really antagonize and aggravate somebody who ultimately is going to have the final say on things that may be very important to us?"

Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, thought the court did deserve a reprimand. "I don't know about all the legal stuff, but what I do know about is about the 9th Circuit," he said. "As somebody who comes from a community that was absolutely devastated - 2,000 people left our community in the '90s - and, talking about a pattern of anti-development decision-making, that sort of stuff destroyed families in my community. ... These people hurt and harmed good, hard-working Alaska families. All they want to do is get up and go to work in the morning, and it gets all tied up in all of this legal mumbo jumbo."

Rep. Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage, agreed. "We're not trying to be polite, we're trying to say what we think," he said. The judges are unlikely to be insulted by criticism from the Legislature, when Alaska's congressional delegation is going much further, calling for the 9th Circuit Court to be broken up into courts that cover smaller geographical areas, he pointed out. "The junior senator and the member of Congress might scold us for being too milquetoast on this," Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak/Matsu, added.

Kerttula: company has worked 'to keep the tone amicable'

"The company that's involved here has worked very hard to keep the tone amicable, to work with the community to try to reach a negotiation, which is what we in the community need to see," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau. "We need to be objective. ... I think our words are going to last longer than we do, and we want to be proud, we want our kids to be proud of what we've done," echoed Rep. Sharon Cissna, D-Anchorage.

If the judges are likely to be strongly affected by the resolution, the Legislature should send them two resolutions, Johnson, its author, suggested. "This is about our right as a state to develop our resources; the 9th Circuit needs to know where we stand," he said. Nevertheless, the wording was removed and the resolution was passed by the House without it, just before the end of the legislative session. Coeur d'Alene Mines will have to decide whether to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, but only after the 9th Circuit Court publishes its decision, whenever that may be.


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