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Pebble Watershed Risks Now in Hands of EPA Science Panel
Posted 8.11.12 by Renewable Resources Coalition
ANCHORAGE, Alaska— The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to assess the environmental impacts of the Pebble Mine are now causing repercussions on Capitol Hill.
The Anchorage Daily News reported this week that some congressional republicans are challenging the E.P.A's authority to rule on Pebble Mine. Some Congressman feel that Pebble is an Alaska issue, not a federal one.
But this week, the E.P.A. said that critics who challenge its authority on this issue are wrong.
The Agency says that under the Federal Clean Water Act of 1972, it has the responsibility to protect the nation's waterways. In fact E.P.A says that 13 times in the past, it has vetoed big industrial projects by invoking the Clean Water Act.
The most recent time it did so was just one year ago, when it ruled against a coal mine in West Virginia. The mine wanted to utilize a practice called, "Mountaintop Removal" to economically access a high-altitude coal reserve.
As the name implies, "Mountaintop Removal" allows the company to dynamite the peak of a mountain to free the coal inside. But in the process, the miner must dump the mine tailings -- or wastes -- into streams in the valleys below.
In 2011, the E.P.A ruled against the company, saying the tailings would pollute the streams -- in violation of the Clean Water Act.
That is the power the E.P.A is now invoking in its investigation of "The Pebble Prospect". The agency has two main concerns. Pebble is a nearly pristine watershed. And E.P.A statistics show that when hard-rock mines transport metals they mine (such as copper) -- through slurry pipelines -- there is a 98 percent chance that, during the life of the mine, there will be a spill of toxic materials into nearby streams. This sort of failure runs the risk of harming salmon habitat.
In addition, there is another risk. Even long after the mine shuts down operation, the water which passes through the massive amount of mine waste, or tailings, must be impounded. E.P.A projects that Pebble could need a 685-foot-deep tailings-impoundment pond which would have to maintain its integrity "in perpetuity". The problem is that the 2 to 6 billion tons of mine tailings (some say it will ultimately be 10 billion tons) could be acid-generating for 10,000 to 40,000 years. And acid runoff could leach toxic heavy metals into salmon streams.
There are two issues environmentalists fear with such a long-term impoundment.
First that there could be a "hydrologic failure" of the massive, water-impoundment dam. When tailings ponds have failed in the past, it is usually the result of water-build-up behind the dam creating inordinate pressures on the structure. There are concerns that with global warming, Bristol Bay could see more and more large rain events --- events could pose risks for the dam.
The Pebble Partnership says that sort of failure is not likely. It intends to build the water-impoundment pond to the very highest standards, with an annual risk of failure no greater than 1-in-a-million.
The other risk, according to environmentalists, is seismic. They point out that Alaska is home to a subduction zone -- the areas around the world that are prone to the most violent earthquakes. They also say that the Clark Fault comes to within 15 miles of Pebble, further aggravating the seismic risks.
In a recent interview with Channel 2, Pebble C.E.O. John Shively claimed that the Clark Fault fault had not been active for 1.8 million years. He also said the impoundment dam would be designed with seismic events in mind. According to Shively, an impoundment facility at a Copper mine in Chile survived the third largest earthquake in recorded history in 2010 without failing.
But, even without a catastrophic failure of the impoundment pond, critics say that even normal mining operations could endanger salmon in the region.
Bristol Bay is something of a natural wonder. It is home to the biggest wild "sockeye" run on earth. Each year, more than 37 million sockeyes return to Bristol Bay. That is 45 percent of all the wild sockeye runs on the entire planet. And those are not "hatchery" fish. They are wild salmon.
With groundwater now freely traversing the region, there is some question as to whether groundwater could pass through the site of the massive mine without becoming polluted. And those who raise these concerns point to the impressive size of the proposed mine.
Pebble is truly a mammoth project. Even under the 25-year-license that "The Pebble Partnership" is seeking, it would likely be bigger than all the hard-rock mines in Alaska combined.
And E.P.A. projects that if the mine ultimately pulls out all of the commercial-grade copper, gold and molybdenum available, it will grow -- over the course of the next century, into one of the largest hard-rock mines in all of North America.
Because the Bristol Bay Watershed is one of the last intact ecosystems on earth, the fear is that disruption of that ecosystem will harm the salmon.
Pebble denies this, saying that if the mine cannot be constructed in a way that does not harm the salmon, it will not be built at all.
In the meantime, the decision of whether the mine can be built to operate in accordance with the 1972 Clean Water Act is in the hands of the E.P.A.
The 12 scientists now charged with examining the matter have until the end of this year to write their report.
Once that is done, E.P.A. Administrators will examine their findings, and make a ruling on Pebble. A decision is expected by this time next year.
It's a decision which could trump Alaska's mine-regulating authorities even before they have a final proposal from The Pebble Partnership for the site's development.