Originally published February 2011.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced February 7, 2011 that it will review the consequences of the proposed massive Pebble Mine project on the Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska
The EPA’s decision was welcomed by the many opponents of the mine and criticized by the mine’s supporters. The EPA’s announcement is in response to an urgent request from nine native tribes that depend on the Bristol Bay and its rivers for subsistence
What is Pebble Mine?
As reported in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, the proposed Pebble Mine will be the largest mining operation of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, eventually extracting up to $300 billion worth of gold, copper and molybdenum from the undeveloped Alaskan wilderness. Pebble Mine is being developed by the Pebble Partnership, a venture between London-based global mining company Anglo American and Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. of Canada. What has thousands of Alaskans and many diverse groups alarmed is that massive Pebble Mine will be sited in the middle of a pristine watershed that feeds the most productive sockeye salmon fishery in the world: Bristol Bay.
As proposed, Pebble Mine will actually consist of two mining operations, Pebble West and Pebble East. Pebble West will be the largest open-pit mine in North America, with a pit two miles wide and at least 2000 feet deep. Pebble East will be a large underground block caving mine. The waste from this operation, roughly ten billion tons of highly-toxic effluent, spent ore, and mine tailings, will be forever contained in two toxic lakes covering ten square miles. These lakes, poisonous with sulfuric acid and heavy metals such as copper, chromium and arsenic, will be held behind four earthen dams. Two of these dams will be the largest in the world, dwarfing China’s Three Gorges Dam.
Pebble Mine will be easily visible from space. A 100-mile road and pipelines built for the project will transport supplies, highly-toxic ore slurry, and water between the mine site and a new deep-water port at Cook Inlet. Again, the port will be built for the Pebble Mine project. The operation will require as much energy as Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, and likely draw power from a dedicated, new power plant. Pebble Mine will be a leach mine and the common leach agent for such a mine is sodium cyanide. A mine of this size might use from 20 to 40 tons of sodium cyanide per month. This cyanide will be trucked 100 miles on a road that will cross streams and rivers and border pristine Iliamna Lake, which drains into Bristol Bay.
Pebble Mine promises to bring 2000 jobs during construction and up to 1000 jobs over the life of the mine (see Juneau Empire). However, Bristol Bay supports a regional commercial and sports fishery worth roughly $2.2 billion. The region teams with diverse wildlife including moose, caribou, grizzly bear, wolverines, seals, sea birds and bald eagles. And then there are the millions of salmon surging upstream to spawn. All of these animals require clean water. A spill from Pebble Mine could easily decimate the region, both environmentally and economically. But what are the odds? Mining companies always promise to employ the best technologies and take the greatest possible care to keep their poisons out of the environment. So what is their track record?
Over 89% of such mines leak into the surrounding environment. Some of the world’s most horrific environmental disasters have come from mining operations. In January 2000 at an operation run by the Romanian-Australian firm AURUL, a containment dam similar to those proposed at Pebble Mine burst, resulting in a mammoth spill of toxic effluent. The spill poisoned the Szamos, Tisza, and Danube Rivers, exterminated aquatic life in over 150 miles of river systems and poisoned water supplies for communities (people) in Romania, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria. Hungary removed over 300 tons of dead fish from its rivers and Hungarian officials declared it the worst disaster since Chernobyl. (See New York Times and BBC News.)
In 1990, the Summitville Gold Mine in Colorado released a flood of cyanide, heavy metals, and sulfuric acid into the Alamosa River. The spill killed all aquatic life in over 17 miles of the river. The Canadian company, Galactic Resources, quickly filed for bankruptcy and abandoned the site. The mine is today a U.S. EPA Superfund site and to date, the EPA has spent over $250 million for ongoing clean-up and recovery. (See USGS.)
Robert Friedland, the former CEO of Galactic Resources, then formed Golden Star Resources and with another company, opened the Omai Gold Mine in Guyana. In 1995 the Omai Gold Mine released a major spill of cyanide and heavy metals into the Essequibo River, Guyana’s main river. The disaster killed many thousands of fish, the main food supply for people living along the river. President Cheddi Jagan of Guyana declared a 50-mile stretch of the river an Environmental Disaster Zone. (See Statement by Ambassador Odeen Ishmael, Permanent Representative of Guyana to the Organization of American States) and Omai Gold Mine, Halifax Initiative). These are only a few of the disasters. There are many.
A large number of organizations and individuals have come out against Pebble Mine. These include Robert Redford, National Resources Defense Council, Bristol Bay Alliance, the Moore Foundation (endowed by Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel Corporation), the New York Times, and a long list of retail jewelers.
The EPA’s obligation under the U.S. Clean Water Act is to stop any project that would have an “unacceptable adverse effect” on water quality and wildlife. However a new wrinkle may have entered the picture. On January 30, 2011, Alaskan Republican Congressman Don Young introduced a bill that if passed, would amend the Clean Water Act to remove the EPA’s ability to veto an Army Corps of Engineers decision regarding Clean Water Act Section 404 permits. This legislation was introduced in the 111th U.S. Congress as H.R. 5992.
According to Don Young: “Projects in Alaska and across the country have been shut down or delayed time and time again by the EPA, which serves only as an extension of the Administration’s anti-resource development stance. The Corps of Engineers is more than capable of making decisions regarding permitting without being second guessed. The EPA’s involvement in such permitting is unnecessary, and must be removed.” According to Congressman Young, the EPA should not be involved with protecting the environment. Stay tuned.