Forum tackles mining issues

Posted: Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Last week’s community forum at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center raised questions about open pit mining and concerns from Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. that some of the information presented was not entirely relevant to its Pebble Mine project.

The forum was sponsored by Cook Inlet Alliance, a recently formed nonprofit organization in Homer designed to gather and share information about the proposed mine located north of Iliamna Lake.

Northern Dynasty owns the rights to purchase 100 percent of the gold, copper and molybdenum deposit at the Pebble site and has called it North America’s largest gold resource.

At the forum Nov. 17, geophysicist David Chambers, the executive director of the Center for Science in Public Participation, gave a presentation on the mining process and showed examples of problems he has seen while working on mining and water quality issues for public interest groups and tribal governments throughout the country.

Chambers took the more than 150 attendees through the process of mining, including a detailed list of the chemicals used, the potential for groundwater and stream pollution and showed numerous examples of reclamation attempts gone awry.

One photograph showed a landslide that occurred after a mine had shut down. Another showed a stream Chambers said was polluted by groundwater runoff. And another showed a pit lake — similar to the one planned for the Pebble Mine after it shuts down — that has grown increasingly toxic since it was formed.

“When you build one of these pits, there’s not a whole lot you can do with it,” Chambers said, pointing to the screen. “I take any prediction of pit lake quality with a grain of salt.”

Much of what Chambers presented showed worst-case scenarios of environmental damage from mines throughout the world, but after the presentation, when asked from the audience for an example of a well-run mine, Chambers mentioned the Fort Knox open pit mine, 30 miles northeast of Fairbanks.

There were no Northern Dynasty representatives at the meeting, but Bruce Jenkins, chief operating officer from Northern Dynasty Mines also mentioned Fort Knox as one of thousands of mines with good records by phone Nov. 18.

“What you see in those slides are examples of problems,” Jenkins said. “It’s not as prevalent as you’d think.”

Jenkins also mentioned the Gibraltar open pit mine in British Columbia, Canada, run by Northern Dynasty’s sister company, Taseko Mines Ltd., as a good example.

Jenkins said that mine is closer to the Frasier River — home to tens of millions of returning salmon — than Pebble is to critical salmon habitat near Iliamna Lake.

“They’ve been operating for 26 years and the net impact on the fishery has been zero,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins said he has seen similar slide presentations from Chambers before and had been told about what was said at the Nov. 17 forum.

“What you don’t hear from those who are ideologically opposed to mining is examples of all the mines that do have good records,” Jenkins said.

Mike O’Meara, co-chair of the Cook Inlet Alliance, said the group has not yet come out for or against the mine.

The purpose of the forum, O’Meara said, was to provide information about open pit mining to those in the community who wanted to learn more. Much of the information is complicated and detailed, he said.

“It’s like peeling an onion,” he said. “And we’re going to keep peeling.”

Anne Rothe followed up Chambers’ slide show with a presentation on the history of mining in Alaska and raised questions about the economic impacts of the industry.

Rothe is a wildlife biologist, journalist, environmental consultant and former director of the Trustees for Alaska, a public interest law firm whose mission is to provide legal counsel to sustain and protect Alaska’s natural environment. Her presentation was a summary of six months of work she recently completed as a consultant.

She said the state earns more from oil and gas development than from mining because of archaic mining laws. Mining revenues are comparable to what the state gets from the sport and commercial fishing industry, but those industries hire more people than mines do, she said.

According to Rothe, Alaska’s mining industry produced $788 million worth of metals in 2001.

The state, boroughs and municipalities gained roughly 2 percent of market value (about $14 million) through taxes, royalties and other revenues and 2,835 jobs were created.

That same year commercial fishing produced $1.1 billion worth of fish, the state and local governments earned roughly 2 percent of that market value, and 15,130 people worked in the industry. Because of technology, Rothe said, “it doesn’t take many people to run a big mine.”

Rothe also showed an organizational chart of several companies that own mines in the state.

The slide showed a complex hierarchy of layers, four or five deep in some cases, of wholly or partly owned subsidiaries of foreign parent companies that originate in Canada and Britain.

This complexity could make it difficult to recoup damages to the state, if they occur, Rothe said. She used the Exxon Valdez oil spill as an example.

She also said the foreign-based parent companies would not be held as liable as firms based in the United States because of international laws. And when Northern Dynasty finds a major partner for the project, there is a chance that partner won’t share the same vision of the mine or keep the promises Northern Dynasty has made, she said.

“We may not be the ones who pay the whole bill,” she said. “It will be our children and grandchildren.”

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