Pebble Mine Documentary: Comprehensive and Controversial

July 25, 2012|By Dan Fiorucci | Channel 2 News

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The award-winning PBS Television series, "Frontline" examined Pebble Mine in a documentary that aired Tuesday night and the subject manner continues to generate mixed reactions.

And one day after the program was broadcast, supporters of the mine seemed displeased with the documentary, while mine opponents largely liked it.

The hour-long show was a comprehensive look at Pebble, and it comes just two weeks before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is due to return to Anchorage for a scientific discussion of water-quality issues related to the proposed mine.

Today (Wednesday) the Chief Executive Officer of the Pebble Limited Partnership told Channel 2 News the documentary was flawed. John Shively cited the program's reliance on a May 2012 E.P.A water quality study, a study that he says is inaccurate.

The documentary describes the E.P.A. Water-study as "coming down hard on the Pebble mine". The E.P.A. says  there is a risk of major loss of fish habitat.

But Shively points out that to perform the study, E.P.A. Had to design a computer model of a hypothetical mine along Bristol Bay -- about the size of Pebble. He says that because his consortium has not submitted a final plan, the E.P.A. Cannot possibly simulate the real-life mine Pebble hopes to build.

He also says the E.P.A study assumed that other mines would start operating in the area -- once Pebble builds roads and other infrastructure. He contends that Pebble cannot be held responsible for computer models of other operators' mines.

The merits of the E.P.A. Study will be discussed in detail in Anchorage on August 7th when E.P.A convenes a panel of scientists to perform peer-review of its May 2012 water-quality assessment.

Rick Halford, a former Republican State Senator in Alaska -- who opposes the mine -- says the program outlined the serious issues at stake and did it well.

He says that in his 47 years in this state, he never opposed a mine project, but he opposes Pebble.

The reason is simple. It's because Pebble will be located in the Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska -- which is home to one of the great salmon runs in all the world. An estimated 40 to 60 million of the fish return to the region's streams to spawn each year.

Halford simply does not believe that one of the world's biggest Copper, Gold and Molybdenum mines can coexist with what is now a perfectly intact ecosystem. He believes that Alaska must make a value-judgement on whether it wants a mining district near Bristol Bay or healthy salmon runs.

Shively, on the other hand, believes that Alaskans can have both. He says that the mine will not be built unless Pebble can prove to state and federal agencies that it will not harm the salmon.

It may take 2 years or more for Pebble to issue a final plan. It is still studying the best way to build and operate the mine.

Perhaps the most dramatic part of the Frontline program dealt with the tailings pond that would have to be built at Pebble -- to store its wastes in perpetuity.

Just how big the pond will be is still not settled. We do know this, if the mine operates for the next 100 years, more than ten billion tons of tailings (mine waste, largely in the form of pulverized rock) will have to be disposed of.

Shively says he's not getting the mine licensed for 100 years. He says the Pebble Partnership is only applying for a 25-year license. But estimates indicate there is enough ore at Pebble to keep it operating profitably for a century.

By one calculation, it could take a 700-foot-deep impoundment pond to contain those tailings. Pebble disputes this, saying it has submitted no final plan, and the size of the impoundment has not been determined.

But the Frontline program points out that this impoundment will have to last "in perpetuity", and that if it fails, the environmental consequences could be devastating.

Pebble says the pond will be built to 21st century standards and that the risk of failure, in any given year, is only around 1 in a million.

Nevertheless, Frontline pointed to instances in which impoundment ponds -- built by other companies in other parts of the world have failed. Perhaps the most egregious example cited was the 1985 failure of a tailings dam in Stava Italy. The collapse, caused by poor design and extremely high water pressure, killed more than 260 people.

But Pebble points out that properly built tailings dams do not have to fail. Shively says that in 2010, the third largest earthquake in history rocked the nation of Chile, and the tailings pond at one of the world's largest copper mines in that country did not fail.

These and other issues are expected to be discussed by scientists when they visit Anchorage August 7th to discuss the E.P.A. Water assessment.

The Federal Agency has the power to stop the Pebble mine.

Shively says that would constitute unwarranted interference in state issues. He adds that it would also be unfair, in light of the fact that Pebble has not yet issued a final plan for regulators to review.

If the mine goes ahead, it could be in operation before the end of the decade. Its minerals, at today's prices, are worth an estimated $500 billion.

But Rick Halford worries that the mine, even if operated properly, will disrupt a pristine ecosystem in the Bristol Bay Region. It's an ecosystem which is not yet fully understood by scientists.

He says it would be a shame if a salmon fishery -- which has existed for thousands of years (many of the native people of Alaska arrived at the end of the last Ice Age, by walking in from Siberia) -- is put at risk by a project that will, at most, provide a century of profits.

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