Andrus returns to Alaska, not for preservation but to celebrate mine opening

Former Idaho Gov. and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus returned to Alaska this week as he has many times since his savvy political advice led Jimmy Carter to protect much of its grandest national treasures.

As secretary, Andrus recommended to Carter to set aside 56 million acres of its magnificent and often most coveted federal lands, into national monuments in 1978. Carter and Andrus, working with environmental heroes like Rep. Morris Udall, were able to leverage those monuments into 103 million acres of national parks, national wildlife refuges, wild and scenic rivers and wilderness areas in the 1980 Alaska Lands bill.

At the time Andrus’ name was mud to the “propeller-heads,” as he and former Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond described the men who wanted to carve up some of the nation’s most beautiful landscapes, no matter what the impact. But this week Andrus was in Juneau to celebrate an altogether different landmark, the opening of the Kensington Gold Mine.

Andrus was on the board of Coeur d’Alene Mines for many of the 17 years the Idaho-based company worked on opening the controversial mine. So he joined his close friend CEO Dennis Wheeler in a community celebration upon the opening of the $400 million mine.

“I always was supportive of mineral developments that were protective of the environment,” Andrus said in a telephone interview.

Initially, the company was looking at dumping the 7.5 million tons of mine waste it will produce directly into Berners Bay, home to coho and sockeye salmon shrimp and king, tanner, and Dungeness crab. “That was dead wrong,” Andrus said.

Eventually it decided to place the tailings in a small lake, where the company is confident it can keep from spreading toxic contamination. But environmentalists weren’t convinced.

And while they were clear they did not oppose the mine, they wanted the company to use an alternative waste treatment. Wheeler and the company went along until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2008 said it wanted to explore even more alternatives.

Environmentalists had won a lower court ruling stopping the lake disposal plan. But with the possibility of endless delays, Wheeler gambled and decided to go back to the lake plan by appealing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wheeler’s gamble paid off when the court ruled in his favor. Coeur d’Alene began producing ore in June and began shipping in July.

Andrus is confident the underground mine won’t sully the bay and will make the small lake into a larger lake with a fisheries when Coeur d’Alene is done.

Wheeler’s gamble paid off even better now that gold prices have risen to above $1,300 an ounce. The Juneau Empire estimates that since mining the gold costs Coeur d’Alene $500 an ounce, and it estimates 125,000 ounces of production annually, the company can expect $100 million a year in profits.

Andrus said that would make up for the $400 million the company has spent and the long risks it has taken to get the mine opened responsibly. It has 12 years of known reserves but exploration suggests they may have even more.

“It an opportunity for an Idaho company to make up for when its stock went into the tank when we went into the depression in the Bush years,” the Democrat said, placing the emphasis on Bush.

Despite the celebration, there were still some people there who can’t forget Andrus’ role in the Alaska Lands Act.

“A couple of people were still growling at me,” Andrus said.