Butte, Montana has a couple of distinguishing claims to fame; one controversial, the other, not so much. What is controversial is that Butte boasts to being the headwaters of the Columbia River. The Canadians and Wikipedia would sharply disagree, but state and federal government and non-profit websites point to Silver Bow Creek in Butte as the headwaters to the Clark Fork River, a “major headwaters stream” of the Columbia River. Anyone who knows rivers knows that if you start with forks, you end up with the main body of the river sometime downhill. If you trace the Columbia River upstream from the Pacific Coast, you will note that it splits into several forks somewhere in Washington. One National Park Service map doesn’t even show the Columbia River having any origins in British Columbia.
But the other Butte claim to fame that is not in dispute is that it contains one of the most contaminated sites in the United States – the Berkeley Pit of the Kelley Mine. The Anaconda Company broke ground on the pit in 1955, and by 1962 had removed approximately 4.4 million tons of waste rock, reaching a pace of 320,000 tons per day of ore and waste combined. The company used large ore trucks called “ukes,” running them around the clock, seven days a week, at a rate of no less than 1,600 truckloads a day. The Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) purchased the pit in 1977 and ceased mining it by 1982 because it became less profitable. In the end, the pit measured 7,000 feet long, 5,600 feet wide, and 1,800 feet deep. During its 25 years of operation, 700 million pounds of waste rock were removed.
The Berkeley Pit earned the nickname “The Richest Hill on Earth,” at least until copper prices began a precipitous slide in 1975.
But digging an 1,800-foot deep pit in the ground was not without consequences. The pit is located in an area with active groundwater movement. During the life of its operations, the mining companies kept water out of the pit by using pumps. When ARCO shut down the pit, it also turned off the pumps. The groundwater that had been held back for decades returned, slowly filling the pit with a volume of 40 billion gallons. And that water mixed with oxidized sulfides, commonly found with exposed copper deposits, produced a strongly acidic bath. In 1995, 342 snow geese landed on those waters and were dead within two days. Following ARCO’s claims that a fungus had killed the birds, a branch of the Montana Department of Justice examined the birds, noting corroded esophagi and tracheae, as well as bloated livers and kidneys. In 2007, there was another incident where 17 snow geese, 10 mallard ducks, nine goldeneye ducks and one swan were found floating dead.
As I stood looking over the edge of the pit, standing on piles of waste rock heaped upon the hillside above, my nostrils bristled with the strong smell of sulfides. The odor sometimes made it hard to focus on the task of taking photos. I could only imagine what it would have been like for those snow geese. I was very happy I was wearing some stout boots.
The Berkeley Pit is now one of the largest Superfund sites in the United States, presenting significant water quality management challenges for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. It operated under the Mining Law of 1872 and subsequent laws amending it, which essentially govern how to establish a mining claim. The point of the law was to promote settlement and development of public lands in the West, and has left behind a scarred legacy. According to the State of Alaska, the Alaska Constitution, article VIII, section 11 was modeled after this law. Alaska Governor Sean Parnell even recently named May 10 “Mining Day” in honor of this law. The Berkeley Pit also managed to shape its toxic legacy long after numerous water pollution laws were passed: the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1972), Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), and the Clean Water Act (1977). Montana’s own Water Quality Act was first passed in 1971. Thus, despite numerous laws in place, the Berkeley Pit is an environmental disaster.
In its May/June 2011 Pebble Partnership Newsletter, the Pebble Partnership touted recent tours with “stakeholders” of the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah and the Cortez Hills mine of Nevada as examples of how “mines operating under modern regulations are protecting themselves and the environment.” The newsletter does not mention the Kelley Mine and its Berkeley Pit. It also fails to mention that the Bingham Canyon Mine, owned and operated by the Kennecott Copper Company, had contaminated eight nearby sites, including several waterways and neighborhoods, by 1990. It is still under supervision by the EPA for cleanup in connection with the agency’s Superfund program. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has also been involved investigating and implementing cleanup of the mine’s contamination of the area. The Cortez Hills reference is also interesting in that Barrick Gold of North America is moving forward with its expansion of that gold mine against staunch opposition from local Indian Tribes. Neither of these points can be very reassuring to Alaskans, particularly Alaska Natives, who are opposed to the mine. Of course, neither of these two mines are situated in salmon spawning and rearing areas, or at the headwaters of a world-class sockeye salmon fishery.
The Kennecott Copper Mine near McCarthy, Alaska, is also cited by the Pebble Partnership as proof of how copper mines and salmon can coexist. The Pebble Partnership asserts that since copper was mined there a hundred years ago, and the Copper River enjoys strong sockeye salmon runs today, copper is not always harmful to salmon.
The Kennecott Copper Mine first went operational in 1911, when the first ore train hauled 70% copper ore from the mill town down to Cordova on the Prince William Sound, some 197 miles away. (In contrast, the Pebble mine site is only 11 miles away from the Village of Nondalton, 15 miles from Lake Iliamna, and 130 river miles to Bristol Bay via the Kvichak River.) The mill town of Kennecott, built near the lateral moraine of the Kennecott Glacier and five miles from the nearest river, is now a historical landmark and managed by Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. The Kennecott Glacier creates the Kennecott River, which flows into the Nizina River, which flows into the Chitina River, which flows into the Copper River at the village of Chitina, approximately 60 miles away. The locations where the copper was actually mined were spread out among five mines at distances of up to nearly 4 miles away from the mill facilities, and up to nine miles away from the Kennecott River up in the mountains. Only one of the mines, the Glacier Mine, was an open pit mine.
During its 27 years of operation, the Kennecott Copper Mine produced 4.625 million tons of ore with an average quality of 13% copper, which is considered a high grade ore. The mine peaked in operations only five years after it started, and declining copper prices in the late 1920s eventually led to the mine ceasing operations in 1938.
There are several reasons why the Kennecott Copper Mine is not a good comparison, from a logical or public relations perspective, to the proposed Pebble Mine.
First, the proposed Pebble Mine would be situated immediately at the headwaters, even displacing some of those waters, for Upper Talarik Creek (which flows to Lake Iliamna, which is the headwaters for the Kvichak River and flows into Bristol Bay) and the South Fork of the Koktuli River (which flows into the Mulchatna River, then the Nushagak River, and then Bristol Bay). The Kennecott Mine had no hydrological connections to the Copper River, and its only open pit, the Glacier Mine, did not utilize a tailings pond like the Pebble Mine will. The Pebble Mine would be also situated in the midst of an area that has extensive groundwater movement and connections between groundwater and surface waters. It is not known what the connections were like at the Kennecott Mine, but the arid regions of Utah and Nevada certainly do not have the saturated grounds found out in Bristol Bay in the Pebble Prospect vicinity.
Second, salmon do not use the Nizina or Chitina rivers near the Kennecott mine for salmon rearing. However, numerous streams and waterways in the vicinity of the proposed Pebble Mine site, including Upper Talarik Creek and the South Fork of the Koktuli River, are primary spawning and rearing habitat.
Third, one of the more significant distinctions between the Kennecott Mine and the proposed Pebble Mine is the quality of ore. The average quality for the Kennecott ore was 13%, but the estimated concentration of the ore in the Pebble claims is 0.34%. That leads to only 6.8 pounds of copper per ton of ore. If the Pebble Partnership’s estimates of 55 billion pounds of copper are correct, the company will have to extract 16 trillion pounds of ore to extract the full copper deposit. That’s over 2,000 times the amount of ore pulled out at Kennecott. And that does not include the similarly-low quality of gold ore and molybdenum ore that the Pebble Partnership will have to extract in order to access those riches.
Finally, and this is the worst message the Pebble Partnership would want to project, the Kennecott Copper Company completely abandoned its facilities after worldwide copper prices crashed. Kennecott Copper Company’s Robber Baron exploitation of Alaska’s natural resources is one of the reasons why Territorial leaders pushed to bring Alaska into the Union as a state – to make sure that never happened again. If that mine is an appropriate analogy, then the residents of the Bristol Bay region can count on the Pebble Partnership to abandon the Pebble Mine and its facilities when it is no longer economically viable. (For a more comprehensive comparison of these issues related to Kennecott and Pebble, read Copper River and Bristol Bay: A Comparison of Salmon and Mineral Resources.)
The Pebble Partnership has also pointed to the success of sockeye salmon on the Fraser River in British Columbia as an example of how copper mines and salmon can co-exist, but that may not be a good choice for analogy, either. There likely is no mine in Alaska that offers a fair comparison. And maybe that’s the point.
For a comprehensive analysis of water quality impacts on ten case studies of mining operations around the world, read Troubled Waters: How Mine Waste Dumping is Poisoning our Oceans, Rivers, and Lakes published by Earthworks and MiningWatch Canada.