Some politicians are dancing around the Pebble Mine. There’s nothing to dance about. While I can say the short truth – that this is the wrong mine in the wrong place – you might want some additional facts as you write your public comments. They are currently due by May 30. So far, our Congressional delegation and Governor have danced, saying they want the “permitting” process to decide whether this mine gets to endanger livelihoods, and kill fish in the world’s greatest remaining wild salmon and trout waters. They know that’s a political process, run by changing bureaucrats whose agendas move back and forth, and that risks approval this toxic open pit mine.
I’ve supported responsible mining in Alaska. But here are some reasons why I’ve always opposed Pebble, including the “latest plan” which is like the Titanic with smoke and mirrors. The chemical processing and on-site storage of 1.4 billion TONS of earth and toxic waste ore puts Bristol Bay, and the livelihoods and interests of the Bay’s residents (most of whom oppose it) at risk for generations.
That will be the most waste rock stored at any open pit mine in Alaska, and appears to be the most waste ore (definitely among the most) of any open pit mine in the United States. So what’s at risk?
Last year 63 million wild salmon returned to Bristol Bay. The Nushugak River, which would be put at risk by a catastrophic spill, is home to Alaska’s largest wild King Salmon returns.
Endless comparisons can be made to other mines, some that have had catastrophic failures after false promises of foolproof safeguards, and some that have not. But none of those are located by communities where the way of life is tied to the world’s greatest wild salmon runs. Even if you didn’t think this was the wrong mine in another area, it is in the wrong place. The risks are too great.
Some Facts For You To Consider: Currently the federal government is reviewing the deceptive Phase One of this project, which is the part closest to the surface. The mine application says the massive Phase One mine being applied for now would move 1.4 billion tons of ore and earth, with vastly more weight to be “held back” by dams as water is added to these tailings.
That is dangerous enough, but you should know it’s just the tip of the Titanic.
The CEO of the foreign mining corporation, Northern Dynasty, which runs the “Pebble Partnership”, admitted at a 2019 investor conference that Pebble will be expanded far beyond Phase One’s 1.4 billion ton waste ore project — after they get their nose under the tent.
Northern Dynasty’s CEO called expansion of the mine after Phase 1 the “whole purpose” of this project at a February investor forum in Denver. That explains why Northern Dynasty lists the size of the mine with Canadian regulators at 11 billion tons of removed ore and earth, or eight times the size of this first phase project.
That would be the largest toxic open pit mine in North America.
But let’s pretend what Pebble is pretending — that they just want the massive 1.4 billion ton Phase One project the Federal Government is being asked to consider.
Two toxic and potentially fallible tailings dams are proposed. That’s where most of the removed earth and the toxic ore, plus tons of added water that will add stress to the “protective” dam walls, will be stored. Until they fail, as many expect, they’ll “permanently” hold heavy concentrations of iron sulfide, or pyrite (which turns to sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water). The world has seen catastrophic dam breaches from smaller mines, without an earthquake. I’m not willing to risk the highest quality wild fisheries in the world with a larger dam in an earthquake-prone region. As the Exxon Valdez reminds us, spills happen.
These toxic open, uncovered tailings dams will cover a massive 3,700-acre area.
The major danger is that they will leach, and toxins will find their way to two of Bristol Bay’s major drainages, the nearby Koktuli River and Upper Talarik Creek. Upper Talarik drains into Lake Iliamna, the Kvichack River and then Bristol Bay. The prized Koktuli drains into the Mulchatna and then Nushugak Rivers before hitting Bristol Bay.
This “smaller” Phase One open pit mine will also return 6.8 billion gallons of treated wastewater every year back into these drainages. What else? Water will be taken from Upper Talarik Creek and the Koktuli, as groundwater and 80 miles of streams will be filled and destroyed.
The main commercial ores the mine is intended to produce are copper and gold. Leeching copper has been scientifically proven to damage salmon by impairing their ability to find their rearing streams.
What else? A “small” spill, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concedes is a realistic possibility, would contaminate, with pollution that exceeds legal water quality standards (and exceeds the pure water quality of our Bristol Bay waters by even more), up to 80 miles of salmon stream.
Other questions remain beyond the breach of a dam and the removal of water from these streams.
How much pyrite dust will blow into flowing waters in this often windy region from the mine? Also, how safe is transporting ore across a windy, pristine Lake Iliamna? How often will there be human error, or dangers that come with cost saving efforts? How safely will the toxic chemicals used in the initial ore separation on-site be handled and stored, in an area of wetlands and streams and wind that can carry toxins downstream?
The Draft EIS you are commenting on calls this Phase One project a 20-year mine, but concedes it will extend to a roughly 100 year mine if it is expanded. Measuring the risk of a so-called 20-year mine, as the Draft EIS does, is deceptive. The toxic sludge and materials in this mine will be left on site for more than 20 years. They will be left there forever. The danger should be measured at 50 years, 100 years, and for as long as there are people who live in the region and rely on wild salmon.
In addition to sending in public comments, whether short or detailed, please make a few quick phone calls if you can, to register your views on this mine. This is a federal project, but recent news reveals that Governor Dunleavy has asked the federal government for relaxed mining standards too. So consider leaving a short message for your congressional delegation and Governor (Senator Murkowski at 271-6665, Senator Sullivan at 271-5915, Rep. Young at 271-5978, and Governor Dunleavy at 465-3500).
We’re in this together. Let’s join and stand up for the Alaskans whose lives would be most impacted by this mine, and for an Alaska we believe in.
This column is from a recent newsletter by Former Rep. Les Gara, who represented Alaska District 20 for nearly two decades.