Exploratory work continues on potential Icy Bay mine

Environmental questions posed on potential adverse impact to fisheries

A decision on actual development may be several years off, but the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority is already planning to drill for more core samples in 2018 on the gold and heavy minerals deposit near Icy Cape, about 75 miles from Yakutat.

The project is in the exploration stage, still establishing concentrations of mineral resources, according to Wyn Menefee, acting executive director of the Trust, which is charged with developing its land resources to fund the state’s mental health needs. The Trust does this by developing resources, including minerals and timber, to be extracted from lands it has been allocated.

The actual determination to proceed with mining will be a progression to see what the resource really is and to work with international mining companies who have already expressed interest, he said.

To date the Trust has spent some $2 million on the project and plans to spend another $3 million.

“Part of what we are seeing out there in the sand is garnet, an industrial abrasive, and there are only a certain number of companies that deal with that in the U.S., but other international companies have an interest in this prospect,” he said.

Exploration began in 2015, with three people in the field, expanding to six in the field in 2016 and 16 workers for nine weeks this past summer. with contractor Boart Longyea drilling down to 100 feet deep into sediment deposits, as the Trust is looking for mineral concentrations in the sands, he said.

Because this is a placer deposit, the plan is to pick up sands, put them through a non-chemical processor and put the waste sand back in place, so there will be no huge pits left, he said.

The Trust is eying eroding source material up in the mountains that is deposited as washed out of the mountains into sands, and looking for concentrations of these minerals in the sands. “We are not exploring or mining on the beach,” Menefee said. “The widest place from the flats is about two and a half miles from the beach to the base of the mountains. It’s a big flat plain.”

Menefee also notes that there are a series of roads in the area from previous mining and timber efforts, and said drilling next year will be primarily accessed by old logging roads. The Trust also has a contract with SeaAlaska Corp. to harvest mostly spruce, including old growth and an area cut some 40 years ago that is low looking ready for harvest again.

Meanwhile the Trust is trying to work with the communities of Yakutat and Cordova to educate residents on what they are doing.

“We want to be a good neighbor,” said Menefee, who sees the potential mine project as having a position impact for the Trust and the communities. The Trust held two community meetings in Cordova in 2017, but very few people attended.

The project’s economic potential, in the form of tax revenues, jobs and local business activity is yet to be determined.

Menefee acknowledges environmental issues of concern, including fish habitat, but said the Trust is required to and will protect water quality.

“We would do it to not harm the environment,” he said.

For the timber extraction contract, we know where the salmon streams are,” he said. “I think there is a very good ability to manage the timber harvest around those concerns.”

But others have concerns about the potential environmental impact of both mining and timber operations.

“There are at least five anadromous streams in that area for coho (salmon) and other species,” said Guy Archibald, staff scientist for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

“They are going to bulldoze and basically strip mine around those streams. We know that the permitting process is not protective.”

“The primary industrial use of these beach sands will be for the manufacture of sandpaper. Is this a good trade off of resources against the potential to harm fish stocks?”

Archibald points to a 2006 study by Tim Kuipers and Karen Naestd on the predicted versus actual water quality at hard rock mine sites that showed I nearly all cases mines with close proximity to water resources and moderate to high potential for acid drainage or contaminant leaching had operational water quality impacts ranging from increases over baseline concentrations to exceedance of water quality standards.

While SEAC doesn’t plan to take any action until they see a mine plan out for public comment, the conservation group plans to work with people in Yakutat and tribal entities there to be sure they are as well informed as possible, he said.

Dune Lankard, an Eyak Athabaskan and founder of the Eyak Preservation Council in Cordova, also has concerns about the project, which lies on traditional Eyak land sacred to the Eyak people. “When I’m out on the delta and as soon as I leave Cordova it’s all wilderness,” Lankard said. “Habitat at its absolute finest, comparable to none. This habitat is important not only for wildlife, but for the spirit of the people.

“There is a spiritual connection to the land and the sea because of its known beauty and bounty. When you see development on the scale they are talking about, all that serenity and peace goes away,” he said.

The area under consideration for mining is close to the Icy Bay wilderness management area and the magnitude of the mining operation along 30 miles of coastline and some 48,000 acres is phenomenal, he said.  Wildlife and sea life both make their living on the beaches, and there are millions of birds too he said. “I don’t see how any of this development would be good for wildlife or fisheries.”

The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority itself meanwhile is being auditing by the Alaska Legislature’s Legislative Budget and Audit Committee, which expects to deliver its preliminary report to the Legislature in February on whether AMHTA assets are being managed as outlined in state law and consistent with federal requirements of the AMHTA.

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Margaret Bauman is a veteran Alaska journalist focused on covering fisheries and environmental issues. Bauman has been writing for The Cordova Times since 2010. You can reach her at mbauman@thecordovatimes.com.