Where Water is Gold, Part Two

Where Water is Gold, Part Two

Along came a Pebble

Part two of a four-part blog post entitled “Where Water is Gold: Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine”

Thirty-two years after the Alaska Constitutional Convention concluded, Teck Cominco, a Canadian mining company, using the name Cominco Alaska Exploration, filed its first Alaska Placer Mining Application, a document filed with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to receive permission to, among other things, conduct exploratory drilling on mineral claims in order to identify the nature and quality of the mineral deposit.    Teck Cominco was seeking to explore the area near the headwaters of the Upper Talarik Creek and the North Fork of the Koktuli River. Aerial surveys of the area revealed discoloration of the ground that was indicative of rich mineral deposits.   Once it started, Teck Cominco proceeded relatively unnoticed by the public for over a decade, while drilling 20-30 holes a season.  In 2001, Canadian firm Northern Dynasty acquired Teck Cominco’s claims and greatly increased exploration.  In 2004, Northern Dynasty announced its discovery of a “behemoth” gold and copper deposit.  Then, in 2007, the British firm of Anglo-American joined forces with Northern Dynasty to form the Pebble Partnership.  By the end of 2010, the exploration of the Pebble deposit had created approximately 1,300 drill holes in the area, along with associated helicopter and drill rig usage, and sump pits for the dumping of exploration waste at each bore hole, all scattered over several square miles of otherwise virgin public land.

In 2012, the Pebble Partnership stands on the verge of finally submitting its application to State officials to develop the Pebble Mine.  The mine will, by Northern Dynasty’s draft designs, become one of the largest gold and copper mines in the world; certainly the largest in North America.  One portion of the development (the Pebble West deposit) would be a large open pit mine while the rest (the Pebble East deposit) would be underground.  Mining operations would consume massive amounts of water from the headwaters of two of the seven main river systems in the Bristol Bay region and the scattered deposits and low-grade ore would generate billions of tons of waste rock and  tailings, which when mixed with water and oxygen create the conditions for acid-rock drainage.  The Pebble Partnership estimates it would operate the mine for 50-80 years.  During that time, the mine would utilize a tailings pond to handle waste rock, constantly releasing treated tailings water downstream under a permit authorized by the Environmental Protection Agency.  And under typical mine closure plans, mines that use tailings ponds are designed to leave a permanent impact on the land – tailings ponds by their very nature can never be fully remediated.

Yet, twenty-three years after the first hole was drilled by Teck Cominco, no Alaska state official has ever made any determination, called a Best Interest Finding, as to whether this was a good idea for the State given other resources and other users in the area.  A “Best Interest Finding” is a statutorily-required determination made by State officials that a proposed project is in the best interests of the residents of Alaska, and for their maximum benefit.  It is derived from Article VIII of the Alaska Constitution, which provides for development of natural resources “by making them available for maximum use consistent with the public interest,” and that such development should be for the “maximum benefit” of Alaskans. While such a finding is required for oil and gas exploration, it is not for mining.  Why?  Because Alaska law has evolved to specifically not require such a determination until the company is ready to actually construct, develop and operate the mine.  And in all of the history of large-scale upland hard rock mining in Alaska, the State Department of Natural Resources has never denied an application for mine development.  Every large-scale upland hard rock mine that wants to get developed has been developed.

But no mine in the history of Alaska has even been proposed that is as large as the Pebble Mine, and no mine has ever encountered such universal opposition from regional residents, from Alaskans and from all over the United States.  Why people are against the mine lies at the heart of my project, “Where Water is Gold: Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine.”

Coming next: An overview of the issues  

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