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Modern Mines Leak: Given the Chance, Pebble Mine Will Too

Taryn Kiekow Heimer

Posted January 17, 2013

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The mining industry has left behind a trail of environmental disasters across the globe, from tailings dam failures to water contamination.   

Bristol Bay – with its world famous salmon runs that sustain Alaskan Natives, wildlife, and a $480 million annual commercial fishery that employs 14,000 full and part time workers – is no place to gamble with large scale mining.

But the Pebble Limited Partnership continues to assure anyone who will listen that they can engineer a “safe” mine.  That a modern mine – with advanced technology and rigorous permitting requirements – could somehow be engineered to withstand the inherent dangers of mining. 

Common sense – and the mining industry’s deplorable environmental record – tells us otherwise.

Modern mines can and do fail, often with devastating environmental consequences.

Take, for example, the tailings pond failure at the Baia Mare gold mine in Romania, which experts have  called the worst environmental disaster since Chernobyl. On January 30, 2000, a tailings pond burst, releasing 100,000 cubic meters of mine waste contaminated with cyanide and heavy metals into the Lapus River.  The cyanide and toxic wastewater travelled through Hungary and Yugoslavia, contaminating the Somes, Tisza, and Danube rivers and destroying everything in its path.


This catastrophe was never supposed to happen.  The tailings pond and waste processing facility had been designed as a “zero discharge” process.  It was promoted as modern engineering. 

The project began in 1992, and after a lengthy permitting process, operations began in 1999.  But after a mere seven months of operation, a dramatic failure of the retaining embankment wall led to the release of tailings water into local rivers.

In the wake of the disaster Serbian Environment Minister Branislav Blazic lamented “[t]he Tisza has been killed. Not even bacteria have survived.  This is a total catastrophe.”  

The entire plankton population in the Somes and upper Tisza river was killed by the toxic plume released.  One thousand, two hundred and fortytons of fish were killed.  Drinking water was contaminated.

The ecological ramifications from the spill also resulted in calamitous socio-economic impacts, including losses in employment, fisheries, and tourism as well as remediation costs.  A five-month fishing ban was imposed on the Tisza river system in Hungary. Due to the ban, eight fishing organizations with 114 full-time fishermen and 115 part-time fishermen lost their incomes. 

Although aquatic life rebounded after the spill (the most severe floods for well over 100 years occurred shortly after the accident, dispersing heavy metals), serious long-term effects of the spill still plagued the region. A 2000 International Task Force for Assessing the Baia Mare Accident found that “heavy metals persist in the environment and ‘bioaccumulate’ in living organisms.  As a result, even relatively low concentrations can pose a threat to ecosystems and human health over the medium to long term.” 

What does the Baia Mare disaster teach us?  Modern engineering can fail.  Accidents do occur. 

When Pebble Mine fails – as it inevitably will – the consequences will be devastating.  A study by the EPA found that large-scale mining like the Pebble Mine would pose enormous, irreversible harm to Bristol Bay watershed—and the people and wildlife that depend on its resources. 

The EPA has been asked by the people of the region to protect Bristol Bay.  The agency has the authority under the Clean Water Act to stop the Pebble Mine. And President Obama can make that happen

Now is the time for action. We know that modern mines can and do leak.  And we know that a disaster at Pebble Mine would risk the people, wildlife and economy of Bristol Bay.

Tell President Obama to save Bristol Bay by stopping the Pebble Mine. Go to to learn more.

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John AmosJan 17 2013 05:59 PM

See aerial and satellite photos of another recent impoundment failure in Hungary (the alumina sludge spill at Aljka in October 2010) at

Closer to home, a coal-sludge impoundment failed here in Tennessee in 2008 -

And to get a feel for the size of the proposed Pebble mine in Alaska, check out and

Dylan McFarlaneJan 18 2013 07:56 AM

Miss Kiekow, tell me the page number where the EPA states with "absolute certainty" the "enormous, irrerversible harm".

My opinion is that you and the NRDC are misleading the public with this false statement. We in Alaska do need a critical discussion, analysis, and understanding of the Pebble project, but you are motivated by self-interests first.

Failures do occur, and we should be made more aware of how our material goods in modern society have strange and sometimes brutal costs on lands and peoples far away. Tailing dams in particular. Because of legal restraints, the public will not be able to learn from the important stories of more common, minor failures at tailings impoundments.

Pebble is an incredible engineering, and maybe more critically, economic challenge. I would appreciate a more technically-informed critique of the project, and less draconian statements. But maybe your organization requires that diction to operate?

Taryn Kiekow HeimerJan 18 2013 03:29 PM

Thanks for your reply, John! You make a good point -- there are many, many other examples of mining accidents and failures. Just last summer, a 12-year old pipeline burst at a massive copper mine in Peru (the Antamina mine) spewing mining slurry. Hundreds of people were exposed and a nearby river potentially contaminated. The irony is that the leak occurred at the same time executives, lobbyists, and lawyers from the Pebble Limited Partnership were criticizing EPA's Watershed Assessment in Anchorage, Alaska. Cheers - Taryn

Taryn Kiekow HeimerJan 18 2013 03:46 PM

Mr. McFarlane, if you reread my blog carefully, you will note that I never portrayed EPA’s study as “absolutely certainly.” What I said – and what EPA found – is that a large scale mine (like Pebble Mine) in the Bristol Bay watershed 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. EPA found that culvert failure would occur at a rate of 50%, and that a pipeline spill was 98% probable. In the case of a tailings dam failure, catastrophic damage would extend hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometers. I believe that Bristol Bay is not the place to gamble with these type of risks.

Dylan McFarlaneJan 18 2013 05:01 PM

When I click on the link "enormous, irreversible harm" it brings me to a 9 November 2012 blog post that says "absolute certainty".

Habitat modification, fragmentation, and destruction is a given - but the design, scale, mitigation, and restoration is important too! The EPA does not consider this or modern day legal requirements, or the special requirements Pebble will need to demonstrate during construction and operation. I believe our currently operating large scale mines in Alaska provide evidence of successful environmental management.

Alaskans - myself included - will not accept poor tailings performance - maybe it will become the next reality tv program. My concern is that the political dust, pricey litigation, and legal tip-toeing forced by NGOs (with no real long term commitment or relationship to the place) will make management of the project very difficult and costly, maybe impossible. I think this is the NGO-Gillam goal. Or is there also a concern for sustainable mineral development? Which Au-Cu-Mo mines does NRDC support?

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