Haines doctors oppose local mine development, cite health risks

A drill site at the Palmer Project north of Haines. (Photo courtesy of Constantine Metal Resources)

All four Haines medical doctors said that they oppose mine development in a letter to the local paper last month. Some residents who support mining say that makes them feel unwelcome at the clinic. The doctors say that was not the intent.

There is no mine near Haines yet, but if Constantine Metal Resources develops one they expect to offer over 250 full-time jobs.

Local doctors said that an influx of workers could burden the health system. They cited a locally commissioned report “The Social Costs of Mining on Rural Communities” that says mining dependent small communities risk higher rates of alcoholism, drug use, depression, and violent crime.

“To me, what they’re saying is totally wrong,” said Jerry Lapp.

He said he isn’t trying to censor anybody, but he wants a second opinion.

“That report is totally reflecting the opposite of what I have seen living here for 40-some years. The best times Haines had was when people were here working, spending money,” Lapp said.

He says their professional opinion is offensive to the mining community. He doesn’t want to see that impact health care.

“If I work for a mining company, am I gonna be treated different in there? If they’re thinking this way?” he wondered.

Doctors say that’s not the case at all.

“Oh, absolutely not,” said Dr. Greg Higgins.

“I mean, that’s almost insulting.”

He is one of the four doctors in Haines. He says this isn’t about singling out an industry. It’s about community health.

“It’s potentially a public health issue,” he clarified.

“I’ve seen it in any type of booming economy where there’s an influx of a tremendous amount of people looking to get wealthy. You see this in other industries and it has to do with just the boom aspect of it, it is not restricted to just mining.”

And he wants to make clear that he and his colleagues aren’t speaking on behalf of Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, their employer.

SEARHC  is the only medical clinic in the borough. It has not taken a stance on the potential mine like the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation did when it opposed the Donlin Gold Mine.

But it apologized on behalf of the doctors.

It’s bringing up emotions in regards to healthcare and we certainly do apologize for that,” said SEARHC representative Maegan Bosak.

She said the health group supports community engagement on the part of their employees. Bosak says there are more constructive ways to it, but didn’t name any examples.

“We’ll leave that to the employees,” she said.

Constantine’s Vice President Liz Cornejo said the study lacks data from Alaska mines, but she wants to take a step back.

“Certainly there are aspects of the report I think are flawed, but I think the intentions of commissioning the report were good in wanting to engage on the topic,” she said.

She and the physicians agree on at least one thing, they would both like to see more community discussion.