Alaska editorial: Pebble open-pit mine is too risky

Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2006

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

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Here's why the proposed Pebble gold and copper mine is an unacceptable threat to Alaska's most productive and economically valuable fishery watershed:

Nowhere in the world has an open-pit mine of this type managed to operate in such an ecologically and economically important area without inflicting significant harm, either during active mining or after mining has ceased.

The upper Bristol Bay watershed is the lifeblood of Alaska's largest commercial salmon fisheries. It's home to world-class sportfishing. Its healthy fish runs and wild game sustain the subsistence way of life for several Native communities. It's no place to test the theory that an open-pit mine can coexist with rich fisheries and abundant wildlife.

There's plenty of reason to question the claims that this mine won't harm anything beyond its immense, sprawling boundaries. The Pebble prospect covers 32 square miles - an area equal to one-third of the Anchorage Bowl. The initial open pit will be more than a mile long and a mile wide.

The Pebble prospect is a high-sulfide deposit. When the ground is churned up and exposed to wind, the sulfur-laden dust carries far from the mine. When rain and snow fall on the vast amount of exposed ground, the sulfur turns into sulfuric acid runoff that must be contained. The American West is laced with streams and rivers tainted by mine runoff.

Yet we are told this mine will be different. We are told Pebble will be so clean it won't even require a water pollution discharge permit. We are told not a single drop of pollution will leak or be pumped beyond the edge of the mine.

The only way the mine might be able to do that is by creating a huge lake on site and impounding the polluted water and runoff forever. But the deposit lies in an old volcanic caldera, with porous, fractured geology that makes it difficult to avoid seepage.

Even in the best case, Alaska will be left with a large, polluted artificial lake sitting in perpetuity in the heart of a healthy watershed. The mine operator will have to police access and monitor the site forever. That never-ending commitment is a lot for a project that will yield profitable levels of minerals for a few decades at best.

How can Alaskans ever be sure this responsible, best-case scenario is what will actually happen?

We can't. Under Alaska law, a mine can avoid putting up a cash bond to ensure it delivers on reclamation and cleanup promises. Instead, the state can allow a mine to offer a "corporate guarantee" that it will honor its cleanup obligations. In this era of shell corporations and rampant bankruptcy filings, that's a promise easily broken by the simple act of going out of business.

Sooner or later, whoever operates Pebble will mine the last of the profits and close down. Then the question is, what will be left behind and who will have to take care of it?

When even U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens questions whether a project's environmental risks are too great, you know there's a serious problem. He is a staunch advocate of developing Alaska's resources. Yet he knows Alaska is not so desperate that it has to embrace any development at any cost.

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