The issue of Pebble Mine has been ongoing for some years now and continues to be debated among statewide institutions, so I find it important to educate myself on the matter a bit more.  From what I know of the project off the top of the my head, it could be enormous in scope and affect numerous groups of people. Pebble Mine has resources our society needs, but if you have ever read Collapse the repercussions of mining are more apparent now than ever.

The proposed Pebble Mine project is an extremely large and controversial copper, gold, and molybdenum open-pit mine proposed to develop within one of Alaska’s Crown Jewel watersheds draining into Bristol Bay in Southwestern Alaska. The proposed site is near Lake Iliamna and Lake Clark. It has been argued that only a large mine is feasible at Pebble due to the low-grade character of the ore. The development and operation of Pebble Mine would be a massive industrial project, costing billions of dollars. Infrastructure would need to be built in order for the mine to operate correctly. This could include miles and miles of roads and bridges across currently undeveloped Alaska wilderness. It would need pipelines for fuel, the use of great amounts of process water, safe storage methods for copious amounts of surface water, electrical lines and constant transport of numerous supplies.

Progress

The Pebble west site would most likely consist of open-pit mining. They are used when deposits of commercially useful minerals or rock are found near the surface. Open-pit mines are, in general, enlarged until either the mineral resource is exhausted or an increasing ratio of overburden to ore makes further mining uneconomic. The Pebble east site would most likely be mined using tunneling and underground methods. The open pit currently being envisioned by the Pebble Mines Corp. would be two miles wide and several thousand feet deep.

It is estimated that 2.5 billion tons of rock waste would be produced by the mining, which would have to be stored forever, along with discharge chemicals, in two artificial lakes behind massive earthen dams. Northern Dynasty Minerals, Ltd. estimated that Pebble contains over $300 billion worth of metals at early 2009 prices. Pebble Mines Corp. is expected to make the final construction decision of the project sometime in 2011.

Information on the project was only a mouse-click away. Numerous websites can be found on the Internet both for and against the development of the mine. I will start with the information provided by PebbleMineAlaksa.com, a very informative website that is clearly against the development of the large mine. The website makes clear the ecological importance of the Bristol Bay area. Its waters are home to Alaska’s largest sustainable commercial sockeye salmon fishery. Tens of millions of salmon return to the small area every year. In addition, fisherman have traveled to the area for years for the famous sport salmon and trout fishing, so not only is it a vital location for subsistence living, but for tourism as well. The website goes as far to call the area the final place on earth capable of sustaining such massive runs of salmon that return there year after year to spawn.

One of the key arguments not to develop the mine is that the waste material produced is difficult to store. Environmental activists are concerned about the chemical reactivity of the by-products of the mine to the environment. Waste materials from this type of mine often contain some sulfide minerals, most major ores of important metals such as copper, lead, molybdenum, and silver are all sulfides, which on exposure to air and water will eventually begin to produce acid and subsequently leach metals into waste water then dispersed into the ground water and on into the rivers and streams polluting the fragile environment. They argue that the methods to minimize the spread of air or water into a waste pile would be useful in delaying the onset of negative repercussions, but that it is just a temporary fix to the inevitable problems of the future.

The actual usefulness of earthen dams is questioned in the debate as well. The website states, “History has proven that the fine particles that make up the bulk of the tailing piles are more susceptible to erosion than are the larger sized waste rock. These large piles of waste rock create a long-term liability that must be managed well into the future. Over the past decade, about one of these dams per year has undergone failure around the world causing major hardship for local communities, extensive damage to adjacent environments, and expensive lessons for mining companies. This could lead to another fiasco like that we experienced with the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Clean-up costs, compensation payments and post-failure monitoring costs could easily pass the Valdez oil spill and bring on another decade of hardship for the Alaska people.”

Overall, these advocates seem concerned with the stability of the proposed earthen dams and their resistance to water and wind erosion, which are very important factors in determining the short- and long-term safety of storing the materials in Bristol Bay’s environment.

The Pebble Partnership, a large institution consisting of numerous organizations that wishes to continue with the development of the mine, offers a different view of the impacts the mine will have on the state. The website states the partnership is dedicated to developing a comprehensive project plan that is environmentally responsible. The partnership refers to themselves as environmental stewards. Year to date, the partnership has spent more than $100 million investing in environmental and socio-economic studies. They vow to stay in compliance with federally mandated Acts and state regulations, worked with 50 plus consulting firms, and sought advisement from some 500 plus independent technicians and scientists working with Alaska’s leading research companies.

Indeed, the project will be required to comply with a large number of federally mandated Acts and regulations. These include the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Oil Pollution Act, and the Solid Waste Disposal Act among many others. In all a minimum of 12 state and federal agencies will closely monitor and provide input as to how the Pebble Mine project will be built. They will oversee all aspects of the permitting process from the project’s initial stages through reclamation and closure.

Through all these efforts the Pebble Partnership is aiming to show Alaska’s residents that they are taking protection of the area’s ecosystem into high consideration before any development takes place. The type of development that “co-exists with reverence and care for the land, people, wildlife, and the surrounding fisheries.”

Fisheries and commercial fishing make up a large percentage of the job market in the Bristol Bay area. Thus, one of the additional incentives the Pebble Mine Partnership is trying to convey to the residents of the southwestern area of the state is the opportunity they will bring. Few other activities outside of subsistence living and resource development are viable for the area. The partnership gives evidence to support their opportunity claims by using information from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. According to Alaska Economic Trends November 2009 report on job’s in Alaska’s fishing industry, roughly 46 percent of licensed crew members and 74 percent of seafood processing workers are non-Alaska residents. With this in mind, the project will diversify the regional economy.

The company aims to hire Alaska and regional residents. Through workforce development programs it will create nearly 1,000 high-skill, high-wage operation jobs. It will also produce 2,000 construction-phase jobs and create new business opportunities in the area. I can see why many residents in the area would welcome the development of the mine despite living through subsistence for a number years: workers in Alaska’s mining industry are among the highest paid in the state. Workers of this industrial sector receive an average compensation of $80,000 according to 2007 figures. The mining industry as a whole has one of the highest resident workforce rates in the state at more than 80 percent.

The above analysis covers both sides of the issue. Now for the personal stance: I do not think or want Pebble Mine to be developed. It is my belief that the project will do much more harm than good in the long run. I’m not referring to the next ten to twenty years, but rather the next 50 to 100 plus years into Alaska’s future.

Let me begin with the environmental impact. The Pebble Mine Partnership has done a commendable job of researching the effects the mine will have on the ecological system of the area, and methods that would help combat those effects. At the same time they have spent millions on advertising to convince Alaska’s residents that the mine would be a superb addition to the state’s economic activities. I would like to see more money be put into developing safer storage methods for the rock waste and discharge chemicals the mining will produce. Man made lakes holding harmful chemicals being held in place by enormous dams made essentially of soil makes little sense to me.

As environmental advocates have pointed out, such methods will not last long into the future. If the harmful chemicals were to seep out into the streams and additional bodies of water in the area the effect on wildlife would be irreversible. The large amount of trout and salmon in the area would dwindle thereby affecting the fishing industries. It would mean one less industry in an area that has depended on fishing for generations.

What worries me is that once the resources of the mine have been depleted the site will be nothing short of abandoned. No more business opportunities will emerge. Lodging for workers will no longer be needed along with transportation and personnel services. The waste will be left behind only to cause havoc on the previous industries that made life in the Southwestern area possible in the first place.

The readings of Collapse offer some insight to this stance as well, I believe. When the mine stops producing the resources and revenue it first produced at the beginning of development the corporations could declare bankruptcy. This would leave outside agencies to clean up the mess these corporations had created. As Collapse points out, even these agencies at times cannot or will not perform whatever contracts they had originally agreed upon. It could be that the cost of clean up goes beyond the amount of payment that was outlined by the established contract between companies. The costs of the clean up would then be placed upon taxpayers. It does not seem appropriate to me that a portion of my revenue could end up going toward the clean up of Pebble Mine when I did not want the project to be developed in the first place. Even worse is the possibility that the site will never be taken care of. The area will continue to be effected negatively, both economically and ecologically, while statewide government officials and the state’s urban residents turn a blind eye. Such a scenario is very disconcerting to me. People should help one another out. It’s easy to distance oneself from the problems of others if the dilemma happens to be hundreds of miles away. People are largely wrapped up in their own daily affairs to take a minute to ponder the ails of the less fortunate, so to me such a situation is highly likely in the future if Pebble Mine is developed.

Lastly, the development of Pebble Mine hinges on our society’s continuing need of diminishing resources. In light of the current catastrophe threatening the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico, I would like to see a change of heart in the minds of not just Alaska residents, but of Americans. There is little to nothing that can replace the fuels we are currently using. If that is true, we need to stop relying so heavily on those resources. It will certainly take a new way of thinking for the majority of society, but such change is needed in order to stop damaging and altering the earth as negatively as we are at the moment.

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