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Boom, Bust, Boom: We Need the Pebble Mine Like the Plague

Joel Reynolds

Posted October 28, 2012

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Last month, Grover Norquist surprised a lot of people when he appeared to take up the cause of renewable energy, noting in a Politico column that copper is a necessary component of wind turbines.  In his view, therefore, we need the proposed Pebble Mine, the massive open pit copper and gold mine that foreign mining giants Anglo American, Rio Tinto, and Northern Dynasty Minerals propose to build at the headwaters of the incomparable Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery, in southwest Alaska.

If Mr. Norquist would learn a little more about the global copper industry, he might understand that, not only is the Pebble Mine unnecessary, it is precisely what we don’t need – for renewable energy or any other of copper’s countless uses today.

In fact, he should read Bill Carter’s new book “Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, The Metal That Runs the World,” just out from Scribner.   Masquerading as the story of his personal journey from Bisbee to Flagstaff, Boom Bust Boom is a riveting expose of the bounty and devastation that is copper – one of the most ubiquitous elements in the modern world.  From copper’s myriad everyday uses to the inevitable contamination that accompanies its production in the most massive open pit mines on the planet, Carter skillfully lays out the arc of his investigation, seamlessly woven into a series of stories, full of personal, historical, and technical information, that lead inexorably to the question whether we can control our appetite for this critical element in order to protect the people and natural resources that make life on Earth worth living. 

And, as Carter discusses at length, nowhere is this question posed more clearly today than at the Pebble Mine, where development of the mineral ore will lead unavoidably, inexorably, inevitably to the destruction of one of the world’s most productive fisheries and the communities and wildlife that depend on them. 

Each year, the commercial and recreational salmon fisheries generate almost $500 million in revenue. Each year, the fishery generates thousands of permanent and temporary jobs, in a sustainable economy that promises countless billions in revenue for centuries to come.  And each year, the fishery sustains the people and communities of the Bristol Bay region, as it has done for millennia.

Because the Pebble Mine promises to destroy all of that, it is precisely the kind of project we can no longer afford – if indeed there ever was a time we could afford such recklessness.

Carter makes clear that, although copper is an essential resource, there are judgments that can and must be made in deciding where, when, and how to mine that resource – a judgment, for example, to allow development only where, with reasonable certainty, we know that  it can be done safely and sustainably, or a judgment to reject development where, as in the case of the Pebble Mine, it promises only to enrich the shareholders of the corporate mining giants who own the Pebble Mine while impoverishing everyone else. 

Anglo American, Rio Tinto, and Northern Dynasty might profit financially if Pebble is built.   But Alaska will be left holding the toxic waste.  It’s no surprise that over 80 percent of Bristol Bay residents oppose the Pebble Mine. 

And so should all of the rest of us.  Take action now to stop the Pebble Mine. 


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Dylan Elek McFarlaneOct 31 2012 05:21 PM

"the Pebble Mine, where development of the mineral ore will lead unavoidably, inexorably, inevitably to the destruction of one of the world’s most productive fisheries and the communities and wildlife that depend on them". Even the EPA Report does not say something so extremely erroneous - do you have to do this because you are a lawyer being paid by anti-Pebble groups and individuals? If not, I'd like you to explain this doomsday in more technical language.

Joel ReynoldsOct 31 2012 06:37 PM

Thank you for your email. I think you've mischaracterized EPA's findings, which are themselves based on very conservative assumptions that understate the risks.

EPA found that large-scale mining would cause (i) inevitable destruction and modification of salmon habitat and populations, as well as harm to the wildlife and native communities that rely on them; (ii) likely habitat fragmentation and extirpation, and chemical, acid, and metal exposure, and (iii) significant risk of catastrophic tailings dam failure. The Watershed Assessment concludes that even assuming flawless planning, engineering, operation, and maintenance – an assumption that EPA acknowledges is unrealistic in an industry where accidents and failures of some kind are a certainty – large-scale mining will cause severe and irreparable impacts to the Bristol Bay environment and to the half-billion dollar annual economic benefits (and 14,000 full and part-time jobs) associated with those resources.

The Bristol Bay watershed supports all five species of North American Pacific salmon, including the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, and has sustained Alaska Native communities for centuries. Even at its minimum size, a mine such as the Pebble Mine would eliminate or block 55 to 87 miles of salmon streams and destroy 2,512 to 4,286 acres of wetlands – key habitat for sockeye salmon and other fish. Downstream water flow reduction will irreparably degrade salmon populations and fisheries and damage one of the very keys to salmon health and volume in this area – their biodiversity. Necessary access roads will cause additional impacts to salmon through population fragmentation, exposure to sediment, and decreased groundwater-surface water connectivity. And degraded salmon populations mean degraded wildlife because salmon support ecosystem strength as a whole. Alaska Natives would also suffer health and cultural harm from mining, as their way of life has for centuries depended on salmon for subsistence, as well as for cultural, social, and spiritual identity.

In addition to these inevitable and unavoidable impacts, failures that have afflicted other mines -- and are certain to happen here -- would cause significant adverse impacts on the Bristol Bay environment, its communities, and its people. EPA concludes that culvert failure will occur at a rate of 50%, and pipeline spills would have a 98% probability. The long-term effectiveness of tailings dams is unproven, and the size of dams contemplated in the case of the Pebble Mine will intensify the risk of eventual failure. Due to the “ephemeral” nature of human institutions over time, maintenance and treatment of the mine site can be expected to eventually terminate, causing severe and indefinite harm to the surrounding environment due to acid mine drainage and metal leaching.

In the case of a tailings dam failure, catastrophic damage would extend hundreds of miles and hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

There are additional – and often more significant adverse impacts – of large-scale mining infrastructure and activities that EPA, due to the deliberate conservatism of its analysis, elected not to address. As a result, the Assessment and its findings underestimate the full extent of potential impacts of large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay region. For example, the Watershed Assessment underestimates the amount of tailings. The Assessment uses a 6.5 billion ton maximum mine scenario, which is considerably smaller than the over 10 billion ton resource estimate released by Northern Dynasty Minerals. In addition, the Assessment does not consider the likely greater impacts that would result from: (1) the development and operation of a deep-water port in Cook Inlet; (2) secondary development; (3) climate change; and (4) a realistic tailings dam failure. EPA severely underestimates the amount of tailings likely to be released during failure, the distance these tailings would travel, and the potential duration of their toxicity.

Finally, the Watershed Assessment does not consider the potential adverse impacts caused by subsidence and fugitive dust. Taken together, these additional foreseeable risk factors unquestionably strengthen EPA’s conclusions regarding significant and irreparable harm attendant to large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed.

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