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By J. P. Tangen
Special to Mining News 

Spring gathering reflects mood of miners

Many concerns of Alaska mining industry about federal regulations meshed with sector's characteristic irrepressible optimism

 

Last updated 4/27/2014 at Noon



The Spring Conference of the Alaska Miners Association was held in Fairbanks last week at a new location. The fact that the conference was held in a larger facility and was very well-attended verifies that despite the ongoing assaults the industry is experiencing, there is no shortage of optimism in the field. The trade show boasted over 130 vendor booths and the overall registration well-exceeded 300.

A significant part of the discussions related to the future of the Pebble Project and how far the EPA will assert its purported authority under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. Since EPA is apparently contemplating using this authority to block the Pebble Project, and since this may be the first application of that authority, the possibility of legal challenges from the project and perhaps the state are viable. As is customary, there also were significant discussions about other current legal matters affecting the industry, including the so-called Forty Mile River raid by the EPA and the state's response; and the on-going issue of wetlands mitigation.

The takeaway from the conference was bi-polar: Although there seems to be a clear consensus that the federal administration is committed to breaking the back of the mining industry through burdensome regulations and other forms of federal overreach, the miners of Alaska are not discouraged and are fully prepared to push back.

I perceived no sense of defeat, but instead a fatalistic optimism.

Three candidates for the U.S. Senate, including the incumbent, participated in parts of the conference and gave assurances to those present that mining in Alaska was an important industry, and they were supportive.

It is clear that mining issues will be a part of the conversation until Election Day in November.

In addition, the governor (also up for re-election) was the banquet speaker on Thursday evening, and, consistent with his past practice, he also weighed in strongly in support of mining.

What seems most troublesome about the state of the industry vis-à-vis the federal government at this point in history is the clear lack of understanding of the critical role mining plays in the health and welfare of the national economy.

As was reflected by both the presentations and the private conversations, at every turn control of private industry is gravitating toward the central government to the clear detriment of small and middle-sized entrepreneurs.

Placer miners have been hard hit in Alaska for a long time, but for the most part they have tried very hard to comply with ever-tightening agency requirements.

At the other end of the spectrum is the EPA's body blow to the Pebble Project; however, with a deposit of that magnitude the likelihood of it not being developed is inconceivable.

The light at the end of the tunnel, and I don't mean the headlight of the oncoming train, is that the changes made by one administration, can be modified by the next one.

If it is true that the current White House is consolidating agency power in the Oval Office, as some have suggested, it also follows that a new administration can devolve that power with equal rapidity.

Notably, Lt.

Gov. Treadwell has made mention in the past, and reiterated it at the conference in a meeting with the AMA Board of Directors that the current policy of the Canadian federal government is to devolve land management to the Dominion's respective provinces and territories.

An inspired U.S administration could profitably take a page out of that book.

Already, Alaska has assumed primary responsibility under the Clean Water act for the regulation of point source discharges, and it is studying the possibility of seeking similar authority over the management of wetlands and navigable waters. These small steps do not get the state out from under the oppressive thumb of the EPA, but they push the Administrator a little further away. Perhaps it is a trend that we can build upon with other agencies as well.

The Fairbanks Conference was well worth attending, and the industry is healthy and strong, if a little beleaguered. It is said that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. We ain't dead yet!

 

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