Pebble, state officials: Mine isn't a done deal: If impact to environment, fisheries can't be minimized, project won't go forward

Posted: Friday, March 26, 2010

The predominantly anti-Pebble Mine crowd that attended Wednesday night's discussion at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center wanted to know if stopping the controversial project is even possible.

The answer? Yes.

State officials who are responsible for issuing permits that the mine would need to obtain as well as a Pebble Partnership representative said the project is hardly a done deal.

"There is the possibility that if we can't do this without minimizing the impact on the environment, we won't go through with it," said Charlotte MacCay, The Pebble Partnership's manager of permitting affairs.

Tom Crafford, who is managing the permitting of the Pebble Mine for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, also said all standards must be met before the state issues any permits.

But whether or not the attendees at the Nunamta Aulukestai-sponsored event believed those words is a different issue.

Three experts who presented Wednesday seemed to vocalize some of the audience's concerns about the potential gold and copper mine that would be situated in the Bristol Bay region.

David Chambers, a geophysicist and president of the Center for Science in Public Participation, explained the proposed mine could have disastrous repercussions. Chambers's Montana-based organization specializes in the potential impact mines have on the environment. Chambers has been an environmental impact adviser on mine projects for 18 years.

Basically, Chambers explained, the porous ground at the proposed mine site increases the risk of the mine contaminating the area habitat. That risk is compounded by the fact that the dense east end of the proposed mine will require the block cave mining method.

The block cave mining method is a bottom-up approach that uses gravity to settle out the ore. Such an approach, by design, shakes up ore zones and leads to potential collapse in the earth.

"They are looking at building a tailing pond on an area that's very porous," Chambers said. "That's potentially contaminated water in this pond, and the question then becomes can you contain it?"

Chambers also suggested seismic activity, like the activity that caused the 1964 Alaska Earthquake, could undermine the integrity of even a well-constructed dam.

Carol Ann Woody, a fisheries scientist and a past president of the American Fisheries Society -- Alaska Chapter, said contamination from the mine would negatively impact salmon populations in the region.

Tailings and waste materials could kill fish while dams and other structures associated with the mine could inhibit spawning and migration, Woody explained.

The mine's tentative location is close to Iliamna Lake, one of the largest salmon lakes in the world, and sits on active salmon habitat.

Woody said even a small impact on the fisheries could grow exponentially.

"If you take a piece of that puzzle out, you can reduce the number of fish in a species," Woody said.

For the people of Bristol Bay, the fish are a way of life.

"That's who we are. We are salmon people. Come visit us. You will see us dance about fish. You will see fish in our art," said Nunamta Aulukestai Dillingham board member Thomas Tilden. "We are people of the salmon and that's who we want to be."

The state agencies say they will consider the people's sentiments as well as the information presented by scientists like Woody and Chambers.

Crafford said the takeaway message should be that a mine requires a "slew of permits," and the state is willing and able to deny approval if that's the appropriate course of action.

"The agencies say no to these companies when they come in the door with their proposal. But they have the right to change their plan to see if they can get it to where it needs to be," Crafford said. "It's a long, protracted process."

The process includes review of the project by multiple state agencies, including Alaska's Department of Fish and Game and the Department of Environmental Conservation. Currently, the project is only as far as collecting baseline data.

Many attendees Wednesday night took issue with the validity of that data, considering The Pebble Partnership is responsible for hiring the researches to collect it.

Crafford said that should not be a concern.

"It's their professional name on the line. The companies that are collecting the data out there are professionals and have a professional reputation to keep," Crafford said. "The state agencies have to accept and approve that data, and if they are not happy with that data they can tell them to go back and collect more."

Others questioned Pebble's lack of transparency.

"We don't want to release the data incorrectly," MacCay said. "You don't put data out there or a plan out there unless you are ready to start the permitting process."

Many of the Alaska Natives at the discussion Wednesday night said they are not concerned about data or numbers. The numbers can be fudged to tell any story that someone wants to hear.

Tilden had a story that seemed to express the feelings od some rather succinctly. He spoke of an ancestor who originally moved to Bristol Bay to mine for gold. Diary entry after diary entry from the ancestor said something like "no gold today, but I did find four beaver and two mink," Tilden said.

"Our gold is not in the hard rock, but in the natural resources."

Andrew Waite can be reached at andrew.waite@peninsula

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