Empire Editorial: KSM: Leaving Alaskans with all risk, zero benefit

As it’s proposed, we cannot support the development of the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell Mine, better known as KSM, a transboundary mine currently under permitting near the southern tip of Southeast Alaska.

 

Alaskans reap none of the rewards but incur all the risk.

It’s a bad deal, should something go wrong, for the Alaska Native peoples of the region, the commercial and sport fisherman, the nearby U.S. national monument and the associated tourism industry, but more importantly, the natural resources — most notably the fish — that thrive directly downstream.

You see, this mine is on track to become as large as the biggest open pit mine in the world. According to information from our three-part series (http://bit.ly/1dSRcAL), “if built, the KSM mine near the British Columbian border could produce more than 10 billion pounds of copper, 133 million ounces of silver, 38 million ounces of gold and 200 million pounds of molybdenum. It would also produce more than 2 billion tons of tailings ...” Those tailings would consist mostly of acid-producing rock. In a place where water does not dominate the forecast, tailings of this nature are less of an issue.

But in this case, a river runs through it and the site exists in a temperate rainforest, where precipitation can reach 15 feet of rain per year.

That’s the problem.

The mine site sits at the headwaters of the Unuk River, a watershed that supports all five species of salmon, steelhead trout, as well as cutthroat and rainbow trout, char and whitefish. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Unuk supports one of Southeast Alaska’s largest Chinook salmon runs. It is also an important subsistence fishery for eulachon. Ultimately, the watershed drains into Misty Fjords National Monument, which draws scores of tourists annually.

The developer, Seabridge Gold Inc. plans to store and treat all contaminated water on site before it is released downstream. Plans indicate the water will be held back by Hoover-sized earthen dams.

This company has every right to work the land and they are pursuing the proper channels in which to do so. They’ve made assurances to Native peoples, been proactive about their plans to treat the water at the mine and paid for an Alaskan workgroup made up of various individuals from within state offices to conduct their own evaluation of the company’s plan.

For the five decades the mine will be operational, we think the plan they have in place is sufficient.

It’s what happens once the mine closes that garners the greatest concern. In short, it doesn’t make good business sense for Seabridge, or whomever is deemed responsible for the defunct mine, to continue to pay out the estimated 25 million each year (that’s assuming no maintenance is needed) to maintain full functionality of the water treatment facility.

Frankly, we are skeptical.

Because when we do the math — $25 million over the course of 200 years (that’s how long experts have said the water will need to be treated) — the tally is $5 billion in water treatment costs. Usually, funds for such costs come from bonds set up before the mine is operational. No one would officially comment on what the bond for KSM will be, but one number thrown out was $400 million. That’s only enough funding to maintain water treatment for 16 years, likely less when economic factors and aging technology are incorporated into the equation.

A 200-year guarantee is a hard pill to swallow, especially considering Canada’s track record of cleaning up its defunct transboundary mines. If there were guarantees when the Tulsequah Chief Mine went into operation decades ago, they certainly weren’t honored. Of course, promises like these come easy when there’s no risk for Canada should developer’s promises be broken. If the streams and rivers flowed east instead of west, we wouldn’t have much to say about KSM. That’s not the reality of the situation.

Even if Seabridge’s plan holds up for the next few centuries, there’s still no gain for Alaska regarding jobs, sales or property taxes. Instead Alaskans will have to wait with fingers crossed for seven or eight generations in hopes nothing goes wrong. All the while the risk will be there.

Who will be held responsible if a dam fails and sulfuric acid is released downstream? What happens if the treatment facility breaks down and during that time water is released untreated? Can we put a price tag on our resources, on the risk we are incurring as a result of this project?

Good questions, we think. And ones that should be addressed by officials, experts, state agencies and our federal government. There should be a plan in place, a good one, for if something goes wrong.

While we don’t support this project as planned, we want to be clear about something: We are not against development or the mining of natural resources vital to our technologies, our economy or our lifestyle. Let’s face it — we need metals and development does good things for an economy.

We do, however, have serious concerns about what a defunct KSM could mean for all things downstream. And we do not support a mine where Alaskans take on all the economic and environmental risk while another country reaps all the reward. With KSM, Alaskans have no way of stopping potential damage to our largest export: salmon. Not only is there no reward, but we also risk a necessary and dependable portion of Southeast’s economy.

Salmon produce jobs for Alaskans and revenue for the state.

KSM does neither but has the potential to take it away. 

This mine is on the fast tract to become operational by 2015. If you have concerns about this project, stand up and have a voice. Tell U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and U.S. Rep. Don Young how you feel.

• Empire editorials are written by the Juneau Empire’s editorial board. Members include Publisher Rustan Burton, rustan.burton@juneauempire.com; Director of Audience Abby Lowell, abby.lowell@juneauempire.com; Managing Editor Charles L. Westmoreland, charles.westmoreland@juneauempire.com; and Asst. Editor James Brooks, james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com.

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