Today, Chuck Bennett is running to be Mayor of Salem. About twenty years ago, he was a lobbyist for a company that wanted to mine copper, gold, and silver on 32 acres in what is now the Opal Creek Wilderness Area.
In 1991 Bennett was called the "public relations counsel" for Plexus, Inc., which referred to the mine as the Bornite Project (bornite is the name of the copper-rich ore discovered at the site).
Plexus and two other companies merged in 1993, becoming Kinross Gold. After that, newspaper stories about the Opal Creek mining project refer to Chuck Bennett as a "Kinross lobbyist." For example, a June 1995 Statesman Journal story says:
Download decision requires trust story
After the Department of Environmental Quality began reviewing permit applications for the project, officials discovered a long-forgotten rule that prohibits any additional industrial discharges in three river systems in the state, including the North Santiam.
Environmental groups that originally supported the mine became opponents in the ensuing debate about whether the so-called three-basin rule should be changed while the Kinross proposal was pending.
Kinross has since turned to the legislature, pushing for passage of a bill that would allow the project to go forward, a move that has sparked anger among mine opponents.
"We could see it happen when we ran into the three-basin rule," Kinross lobbyist Chuck Bennett said. "We could see it unravel."
This is something voters should consider when deciding who to vote for in the May 17 Mayoral election. The Plexus/Kinross mine issue has been popping up in Facebook posts about Bennett's qualifications to be Mayor, which piqued my interest. (For example, see here.)
Someone gave me old newspaper clippings and other information about the proposed mine. So I'm sharing these materials to give citizens some additional insight into Bennett's background.
I feel his lobbying for the mine is significant for several reasons:
(1) It went on for at least 4 years, 1991-95, and maybe longer; (2) Lobbyists have a choice about who they choose to work for, in this case a mining company whose project could threaten Salem's drinking water supply; (3) Bennett's efforts to gain approval for an environmentally destructive mine fit into the pattern of Bennett being complicit in the needless killing of the U.S. Bank trees in 2013, and Bennett wanting to press onward with an unneeded billion dollar Third Bridge across the Willamette River.
Fortunately, the Kinross mine never was built.
The materials I've reviewed don't tell the final story, but I'm pretty sure the legislature never passed a bill to allow the mine, nor was Kinross successful in appealing the state Environmental Quality Commission's rejection of the proposed mine. See:
Download water quality exemption rule story
As the story above says, Chuck Bennett and Kinross wanted the mine to be exempted from water quality rules regarding the Santiam River watershed, which is the main source of Salem's water. After the state Senate rejected a bill to do this in May 1995, Kinross Gold Corporation's hopes shifted to the House. A June 4, 1995 Statesman Journal story said:
Download Kinross forges ahead story
For Kinross, its efforts are being focused on the Republican-controlled House, which already rejected one bill that would have exempted the mine from strict water-quality rules.
Lobbyist Chuck Bennett is pitching the plan as an economic boost to a region hard hit by declining timber jobs.
"There will be 100 jobs created during the construction, and we are not talking about minimum-wage jobs" Bennett said. "This deposit is such an extraordinary project, that it will be mined someday."
Well, Bennett was wrong about that. Oregonians wisely decided it didn't make sense to allow a 32 acre mine to operate as an "industrial island" in the Opal Creek area that came under federal protection in October 1996.
But the Kinross mining company hoped this would happen. Here's a letter Kinross submitted to the Congressional subcommittee that held hearings on the Opal Creek Forest Preserve bill. Part of it says:
Download Kinross Copper testimony
Kinross Copper Corporation is now in the process of permitting an underground copper mine in the Willamette National Forest, a process that began in 1990. If HR 3905 becomes law, the Bornite Project will be surrounded by the Opal Creek Forest Preserve.
Chuck Bennett was fine with this. Lots of other Salem residents weren't, like James Lehner, who had a letter to the editor in the June 7, 1995 Statesman Journal. Lehner said:
Download letter to editor about Kinross mine
With all the pros and cons about the Kinross mine in the valley of the Little North Santiam River, we who live downstream from the proposed project have justifiable concerns about the risks involved. After all, we use the water for play, irrigation and a drinking-water supply... We don't have to accept risks for an out-of-country mining concern to come into our area, remove the profits from mining, and leave us with some potentially catastrophic contamination lurking 50 miles upstream.
A geologist who specialized in water quality and geochemistry, Nicholas Coffey, submitted a letter to Governor Kitzhaber about the state legislation that would have allowed development of the Kinross mine. Coffey said:
Download Coffey letter about Kinross mine
The proposed mine would definitely cause irreparable harm to the watershed. The question that remains would be how severe the damage would be... Water quality in downstream communities including Lyons, Stayton and Salem would suffer.
Another story in the Statesman Journal, "State weighs effects of Kinross mine project," also discussed the risks of the Kinross mine.
Download Effects of Kinross mine story
But Chuck Bennett, current Mayor candidate, spent at least four years working to have the mine constructed.
Like I said, something to keep in mind when you decide between Bennett and his opponent, Carole Smith -- especially if you care about the environment. And love the beautiful Opal Creek area.