Note: This story has been corrected. Samples taken during possible exploration of Sitka’s mining potential would be tested at an independent lab, not at Avalon’s Fairbanks offices.
The Sitka Economic Development Association, or SEDA, wants to find out if Sitka is a good place to mine for gold.
SEDA is expected to ask the Assembly on Tuesday for more than $72,000 from the Southeast Economic Development Fund. It would use the money to pay for a geologic survey of along eight miles of road from Sawmill Cove to Green Lake.
Avalon Development, based in Fairbanks, would send geologists to Sitka for about a week. They would collect samples for lab analysis. What Avalon learns from those samples would become public after the work is completed.
“We think there might be gold mining or mining available here. We’re not positive. This will take us down that step for us to determine that,” said Garry White, SEDA’s executive director. “At the same time, it’s going to be a barometer to see where people lie to determine if having this type of industry and the benefits that come with it is acceptable to the community or not.”
At SEDA’s economic forum back in April, attendees voted on mining as one of the top ways to improve Sitka’s economy. White says if the development comes to pass, there are potential benefits for the community.
“The two mines in Juneau pay $2.7 million in property tax to that community,” White said. “That helps our schools, that helps us as a community overall — a lot of really high paying jobs. That’s kind of the mission of SEDA, to bring family wage jobs and investment to town, and we’re kind of investigating it.”
Not everyone is so sure it’s a good idea.
“I don’t know if this is the best use of the city’s economic development fund,” said Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society. “There’s a long history of mining claims in Silver Bay that have been dubious in the past. Historically, they’re known as being scams.”
Gold mining had its heyday in Sitka starting in about the 1870s. But as the 20th century approached, the industry faltered. In one case, a mine manager sent out prospectors to find new mines to feed the Sitka mill. One of those prospectors was named Joseph Juneau and, as his last name might suggest, instead of bringing business back to Sitka, he put a different Alaska city on the map.
Meanwhile, back in Sitka, developers were claiming high-value veins of gold, but they were basing those claims on samples purposely loaded with valuable ore. A report drawn up by Avalon in April 2012 documents the historical infamy — and malfeasance — of Sitka’s early prospectors. But it also says while there’s no guarantee Sitka will hold significant deposits, there’s nothing ruling it out either, and that it’s worth a look.
Thoms says the Sitka Conservation Society has concerns about the environmental impact of mining, but mostly, he’s skeptical the city needs to be involved at all.
“If anyone was really interested in mineral potential at Silver Bay, that company would pay for the exploration themselves,” he said. “Why should the city be paying for mineral exploration? The free market will find that with the high prices for gold and ore. They’d figure that out pretty quickly.”
Which is the next question: If there is gold to be mined here, why hasn’t someone done so already? The Avalon study from 2012 blames a number of factors, including regulatory, environmental and political fights in the 1980s and 1990s that turned the industry off to Southeast Alaska.
The report also says SEDA should measure local support or opposition toward gold mining before proceeding with exploration. White says there’s plenty of time to take the region’s temperature.
“The average time before someone starts to where we’re starting today, to operating a mine, is well over 15 years,” he said. “We have to take a step somewhere. This is the first step.”
Avalon and SEDA present the plan to the Sitka Assembly at a 5 p.m. work session on Tuesday night. That’s followed at 6 p.m. by the regular meeting, where its request for funding will be heard. Raven Radio will provide live coverage of the meeting, beginning at 6 p.m.