Heart and soul of the Alaska mining industry
When Steve Borell was a 7-year-old growing up in the Swedish community of Lindsborg, Kan., his father took him to a local rod and gun club where a couple of men were showing home movies of their recent moose-hunting trip on the Kenai Peninsula.
"For a young boy who loved to hunt and fish, this looked like the place to go," Borell said.
Borell fulfilled his boyhood wish. He first arrived in Alaska while serving with the U.S. Air Force and later returned to craft a life embracing his passion for the outdoors and, over the past 22 years, enabling him to ably represent the state's mining industry as executive director of the Alaska Miners Association.
Advocating for Mines
Borell advocates on behalf of the state's seven large mines - Usibelli, Greens Creek, Red Dog, Fort Knox, Pogo, Kensington and Nixon Fork - as well as the state's numerous smaller mining enterprises. Borell also has worked to steer trained people from places like the University of Alaska into well-paying jobs in the mining industry and provided information on endeavors like the immediate-horizon Chuitna coal project, which he says will provide jobs for 300 people to 350 people and produce 12 million metric tonnes of low-sulfur export coal per year.
"Steve is such a knowledgeable guy, with decades of federal and state mining knowledge," said Alaska Sen. Cathy Giessel. "He has a way of explaining technical things, bringing information down to the average person. He knows a lot about geology and of course he has a passion for mining, discovery, new technologies that are out there. He's also been really helpful to me understanding what mining contributes to the state economy. It's not all about the State treasury, but the impact of mining on people's lives. Mining discoveries are what built our communities, brought in the shopkeepers, built roads. It's mind-boggling what it has contributed over 100 years."
Improving the Business Climate
Obstacles exist now for mining companies looking to launch an operation in Alaska. Borell says those who don't like mining are correct when they look to the past for examples where mining has left a mess.
"There was a time when there were no regulations regarding water quality discharges, reclamation. That's a fair criticism," he said. "It's not fair, however, to say there are no regulations in this state now. There have been varying reclamation requirements since 1969. People say mining leaves a mess, but now under State law if you leave a mess, your bond is going to be taken and you will be charged for the cost."
Borell says there have been numerous improvements in the regulatory and business climate over the past 22 years.
"Various statutes have been changed, regulations have been improved to make it such that industry knows what the ground rules are," Borell said. "Once industry knows what the rules are, they can meet them. Logical rules that make scientific sense improve the business climate in the state and remove uncertainty. Business needs certainty. It needs to know what it's supposed to do and then can follow a certain set of rules to get permits and operate."
Uncertainty is the reason why there's not more oil and gas exploration in the state, Borell said.
"It's absolutely terrible for any kind of business," he said. "It has been extremely satisfying to see we have improved the business climate on numerous fronts."
Borell compared the permitting process to a dirt or gravel road.
"What has been done is that we have replaced a couple bridges on that road, straightened out some curves, put some guardrails in places where there are steep embankments, filled potholes," he said. "Did we build a superhighway? No, but it's a good road, less dangerous."
The Right Approach
Borell says he often gets calls from individuals who are butting up against barriers while trying to establishing a business.
"They think they're being mistreated by State or federal government, but oftentimes it's because they don't know how to approach it," he said. "We set them on a track that gets them talking to the right people in the agencies, minimizes wasted time going down dead-end rabbit trails."
Borell recently talked to a man who wanted to start placer mining. On his list of places to stop was the U.S. Forest Service.
"I said the U.S. Forest Service doesn't have land it manages there," Borell recounted. "I help them not waste their time checking out things they don't need to check, going from office to office and wasting a couple hours. In two minutes I told him what he needed to know."
Borell told the man how to get information on land status.
"Here's the office, but you can do it on the Internet from your hotel room," Borell said. "When you get to the
Atwood building, go to DNR's public room and you'll find 20 different handouts on mining, reclamation - pick up every one."
Borell said he walked the man through other information he would require on his quest.
"If you come green to Alaska without any knowledge of this, you'll flounder around many, many, many days," he said.
Another facet of Borell's job involves helping supply companies wanting to sell items to the mining industry.
"I sit down with them, walk through a list of companies, find out what product or service they want to sell," Borell said. "I walk through this list. This one you should contact, that one no, they don't have a need for what you have. Out of a list of 30 companies, they will walk away with five companies. And off they go, very satisfied. It's satisfying to me, personally, to know I helped people like that."
Borell sees continued - and increasing - industry for mining in Alaska.
"The industry is not a flash in the pan," he said. "You don't end up with a big nugget, but what you do end up with is steady growth. We'll see that as long as regulatory requirements and the business climate are reasonable. It's a carefully calculated, science-driven industry that goes out and explores. It will continue to grow - not on an exponential curve, not a gold rush."
Borell says the AMA is interviewing candidates to be his successor.
"There's a search going for this position, we're hoping to have someone in place very soon," he said. "My expectation is that person and I will visit sites together, go to (Washington,) D.C., for a week or so, learn who our contacts are, learn about the National Mining Association; they do a great job keeping track of issues. When the phone rings, they'll know what the person looks like because he or she will have been in their office before."
The greatest challenge about his job, Borell says, is recognizing you can't get everything done.
"There's so much opportunity in the state, so many things that need to be worked on," he said. "My in basket is always overflowing. I'm dealing with so many different topics. I'm a Christian and every morning I pray for wisdom."
Borell, just before his interview, had returned from a moose-hunting trip in which he traveled by boat from Nenana to Galena and beyond - 1,000 miles from the Tanana to the Yukon to the Koyukuk River - the kind of trip he had dreamed of as a boy back in Kansas.
"We shot the only bull we saw, a 36-rack bull," he said. "The rut was just beginning and the moose weren't coming out on the beaches. The moon was against us; it was a full moon. Hunting them at night was very difficult, but it was beautiful meat. Tonight when I get home, I'll have the last piece to cut up."