Open Pebble Mine

North America’s largest undeveloped gold and copper mine is right in our backyard. Located 230 river miles from Bristol Bay and just north of Iliama Lake is a deposit estimated to contain at least 57 billion pounds of copper and 71 million ounces of gold. Pebble Partnership, the corporate entity pursuing the project, anticipates that the mine could employ more than 2,000 workers. The deposit is rich enough to support an initial 20 years of production, as well as extensions if found to be feasible. It is an incredible opportunity for Alaska.

Graphic by Jian Bautista.

But if Pebble Mine was all sweet and no sour, then there wouldn’t be such an uproar about it. The project is extraordinarily controversial, and there’s a good reason to be careful. It is an open-pit mine that will require two roads and a ferry across Iliama Lake. The Bristol Bay region is a complex watershed that supports a lucrative fishing industry. There are numerous incidents in history where irresponsible miners created horrendous environmental repercussions.

The concern about Pebble Mine is authentic. The speakers voicing these concerns deserve to be heard and debated. Alaska is a pristine landscape and we all want high standards for development.

Lately, though, it seems like the well-intentioned skeptics of Pebble Mine are not actually interested in exploring how to mine responsibly. The blunt demand is to never mine. Other prospects in the state, such as the Donlin Gold project, face similar demands.

This sentiment does not serve the cause of environmental responsibility as well. Frankly, mining will occur regardless because it is such a valuable cornerstone of the Alaskan economy. Minerals account for the state’s second largest export commodity. An existing mine, Red Dog, accounts for 80% of all zinc produced in the United States. Thousands of workers are employed in the industry and various small businesses, Native Corporations and the State government benefit from millions of dollars paid in royalties.

The world is hungry for mining. Global copper demand is projected to increase by as much as 350% by 2050. Today, humans consume more than 20 million metric tons of copper per year for infrastructure, wiring, plumbing, electronics and green energy technology. This will grow as living standards improve globally. Keeping pace will require opening new mines, and copper happens to be the principal ore in the Pebble deposit.

So balancing the environment with the economy should be less about thwarting mines, and more about building and operating them responsibly. We can do this with Pebble Mine. That will require cooperative engagement from environmental activists.

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Pebble Partnership has gone above and beyond with their project proposal. They spent more than eight years and $150 million to produce the most extensive environmental study in Alaska. Mine infrastructure will be as compact as possible, so as to minimize the impact. The worthless, rocky material that results from separating valuables from ore will be stored in two tailings storage facilities. One will be for the 88 percent of non-acid generating tailings, and the other will be specifically designed to safely hold the remaining acid-generating tailings. This involves full synthetic lining, sturdy embankments and a layer of water at the top to minimize oxidation, which will secure potentially harmful tailings from leakage and earthquake damage. The tailings will be returned to the pit upon closure.

This isn’t just what Pebble Partnership is saying. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released their draft environmental impact statement in February. The EIS was produced by scientists and engineers who do not have a stake in Pebble Mine, and its purpose is to inform regulators on the project and suggest alternative actions for mitigating problems.

The EIS found that Pebble Mine can coexist with the salmon industry in Bristol Bay. You can read the assessment yourself on page 53 of the Executive Summary. This is incredibly important to recognize since mine opponents are trying to frame the two industries as mutually exclusive. It is not the case that Alaskans have to choose between mining and fishing. The EIS cites examples of successful coexistence, such as the Cook Inlet fishing and gas industries.

The findings of the EIS should come as a relief to Pebble opponents. The region’s water tributaries will not be contaminated. Water flow will be as sufficient for supporting salmon habitats as it is now. Transportation of minerals will be orderly and there will be full treatment of any water that goes through the facility. The mine isn’t as bad as they thought. Unfortunately, some groups began to disparage the 1,400 page EIS less than 24 hours from its release, accusing it of being a rubber stamp document is rather slanderous to the independent professionals who worked diligently to produce it.

But fine. Extraordinary projects require extraordinary justification. If people are still unconvinced, then supporters of the mine must work harder. To protect our environment, the state can utilize some tools to make Pebble Mine the safest it can be.

We can raise the reclamation bond for Pebble Mine. This is a financial account that withholds a certain amount of money for the lifespan of the mine. Upon closure, the mining company must restore the land to an acceptable pre-mining condition in order to be released from the bond. If the company does not restore the land, for any reason, then the bond is disbursed to finance the restoration. The company can then be sued for the cost.

The state can get creative with these tools. The insurance requirement that mine operators must meet can be raised. Quotas can be installed on the daily ore production, which would slow the operation down and potentially avoid any rushing. State environmental regulators can have permanent oversight over the mine, and demand access to any special action that is inconsistent with the day-to-day routine.

We should consider all of these tools with temperance so that the mine remains profitable and safe. Given the enormous economic potential, though, investors are likely to make concessions to the state if it helps to kick-start the project.

Pebble Mine can be done right. Alaska can take a seat on the world market for copper, all while proudly flaunting a pristine environment that competitors envy. But we need constructive cooperation from environmental activists. They were instrumental in improving the mining industry over the past century, and they can do it again with this century.