Pebble Mine – Part 1 of 3   Leave a comment

If you listen to the media, you would think Alaskans are the biggest danger to the environment since that meteor that landed off the Yucatan 65 million years ago. We’re always violating the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and wanting to bomb the glaciers. Most recently, we’ve been in the news for wanting to destroy the Bristol Bay Fishery with this little mining project called Pebble.

Most of what I’m writing here comes from the attached article by a group started out opposed to Pebble Mine and has now changed its mind and is trying to sort through the rhetoric to get to the truth. There’s a lot of rhetoric.

The Pebble Mine Project, located in the Bristol Bay Watershed is a major point of ongoing controversy throughout Alaska, the United States and many other countries. Right now, it’s just an idea on paper and a few shovel-loads of dirt moved and examined. If developed, it would be the largest gold mine in the world. It is also the largest known undeveloped copper ore deposit in the world. It’s estimated to contain $300 BILLION in recoverable minerals. The location of the purposed Pebble Project could not be more disturbing to some of the people of Bristol Bay and to a number of residents in Alaska, but it is a major blood-pressure raiser for environmentalists.

Situated near Lake Illiamna on Alaska’s Katmai Peninsula, Pebble Mine would sit at the headwaters of Alaska’s largest salmon-rearing habitat. Alaska being the tectonically active zone that it is, environmentalists and fisherfolk in Bristol Bay fear that an earthquake might take out the containment dams on the tailings and pollute the watershed, irretrievably destroying the Bristol Bay fishery.

The mine would be located on lands owned by the State of Alaska, which is constitutionally required to operate mineral prospects for the benefit of everyone in the state, not just the residents of one area or one industry. There have been huge amounts of site-specific data collected on potential environmental and social effects of the Pebble development, but so far, it is just an idea.

The mine is expected to provide significant tax revenue to the State of Alaska. Approximate 2000 jobs will be created during construction and 1000 long-term jobs during the 30- to 60-year expected lifespan of the mine. Although mining has a less than stellar environmental history, improved technologies and regulations have largely eliminated that concern. The State of Alaska has an exacting environmental permitting process to assure that the Pebble Partnership protects the environment.

There have been several political attempts to block the development, but voters have soundly rejected all of them because they would not just affect Pebble, but all mining throughout the state.

Alaska has a long history of mining. Some of it has been done badly. I grew up playing in the tailings of the Goldstream and Chatanika dredges.

However, I also fish every summer for Copper River red salmon just miles away from the decommissioned Kennicott Copper Mine. Closed in the 1930s, it used no containment dams or other modern technologies. Yet the Copper River remains largely unpolluted and the salmon return year after year.  On the way to our cabin site, we drive past Fort Knox gold mine – a huge open pit mine that is similar to what is proposed at Pebble. It’s not pretty – but you can’t see it from the road and when they’re done mining, they will reclaim the land and in 30 years, we won’t be able to tell that a mine was ever there.

How do I know? I also live 90 miles away from Usibelli Coal Mine.

Usibelli is a strip mine and strip mining is ugly. Started in the 1940s by a man who didn’t really love the environment (Austin “Cap” Lathrop), the old Suntrana mine was pretty ugly when Emil Usibelli bought it the 1950s. He looked at the area where the coal had already been mined and told his workers to push the overburden back in place and plant trees. In the 1970s, the EPA and National Forest Service ordered his son to begin reclaiming the land. Joe Usibelli had to take them to court to show that he had already done what they wanted him to do, just without their edicts making him do it. He saw no reason to cut down a 20-year-old forest to plant the one they were requiring. I’ve toured that now 50-year-old forest and cannot discern a difference between it and the surrounding forests. It’s great moose-hunting habitat.

There are no guarantees in life and development of natural resources always entails risk. In November 2002, the Denali fault line traveled several feet, producing a 7.9 magnitude earthquake. It ranks as the only time in my adult life that I ever dove under a table when the ground started shaking. Like most Alaskans, earthquakes don’t impress me much. This one did! In some places, the TransAlaska Pipeline moved 15 feet. It shut itself down, but it did not leak. Engineers had planned for the potential of such an earthquake. The TAPS held up fine – the Richardson and Taylor Highways required major repair. So, there is no way I could say that there are no risks associated with mining in the Bristol Bay watershed.

I can say that mining in the Copper River watershed has posed no discernible harm to the salmon returns there (Copper River being the second-largest salmon spawning ground in Alaska). Of course, the Pebble Partnership should demonstrate their project is safe and able to withstand earthquakes of a magnitude likely to occur in the Lake Iliamna area. If they can do that to State of Alaska standards, environmental groups should stop complaining because people need jobs. We can’t all work for environmental harassment squads. Some of us have to drill for the oil and mine the minerals that support the lifestyle of environmental harassment squads.

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