Maybe you’ve seen the sticker on a bumper, the red circle with a cross through the words ‘Pebble Mine’ or scrolled past a post regarding the mine on Instagram. It’s likely that if you have an ear in any realm of conservation, fishing, or Alaska, you’ve heard about the proposed Bristol Bay Pebble Mine. Here’s a brief rundown on why people are so (rightfully) upset about the mine.
The proposed mine would sit at the headwaters of at least 1 of the 9 major rivers that feed into Bristol Bay, an area famous for its extremely productive salmon waters, and the 1.5 billion dollar industry that it supports. It also supports 25 tribes of Native Alaskans. Several of these are salmon-based subsistence villages and 15 of them (representing 80% of the region’s total population) have formed a coalition against Pebble Partnership, the organization behind the mine. (Pebble Partnership is not much of a partnership actually; it became wholly owned by Northern Dynasties when the other two companies dropped out). ‘What’s in it for the them,’ you ask? It’s the largest proposed mine of gold, molybdenum and most significantly, copper in North America. Copper is projected to increase in demand by as much as 350% by 2050 (Elshkaki et al., 2016). Humans use a lot of copper. Especially in growing fields, like green technology. Solar panels? Copper. Wind Turbines? Copper. Electric cars? Copper. Hound dog struggling to preserve his friendship with Tod the red fox despite social pressures? Copper. (Totally inappropriate; couldn’t resist).
Here’s a summary of the high (low) points of the nearly two decades of Pebble Mine history. A full timeline can be found here: https://pebblewatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/NewPWTimeline_2017sm.pdf
2001- Northern Dynasty acquired rights to Pebble Mine
2005- Pebble East deposit (much bigger than Pebble West) discovered
2011- Pebble Partnership releases preliminary assessment, EPA begins a 3 year environmental assessment
2014-EPA published report and concludes that mine would negatively affect Bristol Bay salmon; begins 404(c ) process to increase BB protections; partnership sues and halts process
2017- Pebble Partnership waits for a more favorable political arena, meets with new EPA administrator who shortly after overturns conclusion of EPA assessment
2019- Americorps releases its Draft Environmental Impact Statement
The invasiveness of the footprint of the mine pit, roads, bridges, pipeline, tailings and facilities needed to provide power- it all pales in comparison to what happens if something goes wrong. What often will go wrong, with mines, is a failure of the tailings storage facility (an embankment filled with byproducts that are highly toxic and sometimes radioactive). It should be designed to NEVER fail. If it does, you’re looking at catastrophic destruction and (conservatively) a multimillion-dollar cleanup. Two common causes for tailings dam failure are seepage or leakage due to water being in the wrong place and dams in areas of high seismic activity. The Bristol Bay Pebble Mine, for example, is surrounded by wetlands. Additionally, Bristol Bay is an area of unknown seismic activity AND in the vicinity of several faults capable of producing earthquakes of magnitude greater than 7 within the next 50 years. Failure seems very possible.
In 2014, Canada’s Mount Polley mine failed and sent 25 million cubic meters of toxic sludge into rivers and streams. It was the worst mining spill in Canadian history. What’s more, the company responsible for the mine, Imperial Metals, has received no fines, no charges, and no penalties. It seems the taxpayers shouldered $40 million of the tab, over half the cleanup cost. My point is, though the Pebble Partnership touts a billion-dollar profit to extract these resources, you must consider the case of a likely tailings release, and its associated costs.
Conversely, mines can be successful. The McLaughlin mine was located on the outskirts of California’s Napa Valley, the most valuable agricultural land in North America (Walker, 2009). The mine was built to specifications exceeding California regulations and environmental compliance was foundational to design, instead of an afterthought. The company went to great lengths to maintain environmental commitments and much of the site was converted to a nature preserve post mining (Schoenberger, 2015).
The difference between a successful and unsuccessful mine, Schoenberger concludes, may have more to do with the regulatory structure than the mine engineering. It seems the technology exists, but for several reasons (pressure to cut cost or time, gaps between technical people and those that make the decisions, etc/) is not always instituted. She also suggests that it be mandated that TSF design and operation be peer reviewed before, and throughout, the life of the mine to prevent and avoid environmental disasters.
Where You Come In
The Corps recently released its Draft Environmental Impact Statement. It marks the beginning of a very important public comment period. However, in an attempt to streamline the process, or what many consider “fast tracking”, they constructed the document in a record amount of time and they have only designated 90 days for the public to offer input (public comment periods are typically 270 days).
First of all, this is a draft. It’s meant to be improved upon, and should offer the best possible opportunity for America to address shortfalls and discuss improvements. The document itself is 1,400 pages, with several hundred referenced documents and is not peer-reviewed upon publication. Cursory looks at the document from independent researchers say that there was “failure to consider inevitable future expansion, insufficient protections for the fishery, and failure to plan for catastrophic tailings release in a seismically active region.” (emphasis is my own).
Additionally, Corps submitted 165 specific requests for information from the Pebble Partnership regarding how their project would work but published this draft without holding the partnership accountable to answering these.
Given the short amount of time (relative to other projects) the Corps took to put it together and the significance of the mine; most would lobby that 90 days is not sufficient for independent research to thoroughly review and develop counter arguments to the document.
In conclusion, we’re not seeing the evidence that Pebble Partnership is holding itself to the standard necessary for them to operate a mine safely and effectively. We’re not seeing best practice technology. We’re not seeing environmental commitment. We’re not seeing them acknowledge the overwhelming support against the Pebble Mine from Alaskans.
So, let them know. Hold them accountable. Sign the petition to increase the public comment period (https://action.savebristolbay.org/page/s/pebble-mine-draft-environmental-impact-statement-comment-submission-form
Or comment directly to the Corps (https://www.pebbleprojecteis.com/publiccomments/neweiscomment)
Let me know if you enjoyed this blog and what else you’d like to see here! Look for upcoming blogs on California Goldens and Kern River Rainbows, our other two target species on our backcountry fishing pack trips at Golden Trout Pack Station!
Elshkaki, Ayman. 2016. Copper demand, supply and associated energy use to 2050.
Schoenberger, Erica. 2015. Environmentally sustainable mining: The case of tailings storage facilities.
Walker, Richard, 2009. The country in the city: the Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area.