If EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy kept her eyes open during her late August tour of the Pebble Group’s proposed mining site in southwestern Alaska, she saw a mining group committed to the most impressive environmental stewardship possible. I know this because I toured the Pebble Group’s proposed mining site just a few days before McCarthy.
Everything I had read during recent years about the Pebble Mine site indicated the Pebble Group was committed to mining the world’s largest untapped copper deposit (as well as substantial gold and molybdenum deposits) in an environmentally friendly manner. I liked what I saw from afar, but there was a part of me that wanted first-hand assurance that what looks good on paper is actually environmentally friendly in real-world application. This is especially so because I consider Alaska one of the most beautiful places on Earth. So when the Pebble Group invited me to tour the proposed mining site and examine their preliminary work, I accepted.
In full disclosure, the Pebble Group covered my airfare and hotel costs. I flew from Florida to Alaska on a Thursday, toured the proposed mine site on Friday and flew back to Florida on Saturday. It rained during two of my three days there. The cross-continent trip required me to spend a heck of a lot of time crammed into economy airplane seats, but I considered this worth the opportunity to see what has become an environmentally controversial mining proposal. While accepting the Pebble Group’s offer to cover my costs to come see the proposed mining site, I made no promises that I would say good things about what I saw.
Make no mistake, despite my initial positive impression from afar, the proposed Pebble Mine has become a lightning rod for environmental controversy. Environmental activists claim the proposed mine would endanger the Bristol Bay salmon population, which is the subject of commercial salmon fishing. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency even took the highly unusual step of producing a lengthy (and negative) environmental critique of what they assumed the Pebble Group’s mining plan would be, even though the Pebble Group had yet to present a formal mining plan. To date, the Pebble Group has indicated they would like to recover natural resources on the site, but they are still formulating a specific mining plan.
Mine’s Isolated Location
My first impression of the mining site was its isolation. The mining site is approximately 18 miles Northwest of Iliamna, a small village of 100 people located approximately 200 miles southwest of Anchorage. Iliamna stands by itself. The only roads are local and the only way into town is by air.
Flying the 200 miles from Anchorage in a small airplane, I didn’t see a single town until we landed in Iliamna. Alaska as a whole is incredibly vast and largely devoid of humans. Southwestern Alaska seemed especially vast and devoid of humans.
Affirmative Environmental Stewardship
Adjacent to the small Iliamna airport, the Pebble Group has a small orientation building. For Pebble visitors, this is the first stop before touring the proposed mining site. Environmental stewardship is emphasized in the orientation presentation, guidance posters, and rules and procedures posted throughout the orientation center.
“Fish Come First,” reads the title of a prominent poster at the entrance to the orientation center, with several underlying paragraphs providing instructions on the fish-friendly rules and regulations applying to Pebble employees and visitors. Pebble employees and visitors are not even allowed to go fishing in local streams and rivers on their own free time.
“Zero Harm” is emblazoned in large letters on orange safety vests that all employees and visitors must wear when traveling to the mine site.
To reach the prodigious copper deposit, employees and visitors must travel by helicopter 18 miles northwest of the village. The Pebble Group’s environmental commitment is apparent in its decision to transport all people and equipment to and from the deposit by air rather than build a small road that would save substantial transportation expense.
Small Area, Minimal Impacts
The deposit itself is in the approximate shape of a circle with a mere two-mile diameter. The rare concentration of so much copper, gold and molybdenum (a mineral extremely valuable for high-strength steel alloys and for non-liquid lubrication) in such a small area makes the site the most valuable undeveloped mining site in the world. The Pebble Mine by itself would expand U.S. copper production by 20 percent.
The deposit sits in a small circular depression in the land, surrounded by rolling hills. No rivers or significant streams run through the deposit site. The lay of the land is especially well-suited to containing the environmental impacts of a mine.
Bristol Bay is over 100 aerial miles away from the deposit site. Streams and rivers near the deposit site twist and turn their way approximately 200 miles before reaching the bay. It is difficult to imagine how mining activity so far inland, within such a small topographical depression surrounded by hills, would have any measurable impact on salmon populations in Bristol Bay. Nevertheless, the Pebble Group is employing the most environmentally advanced technologies to safeguard Bristol Bay salmon, pre-testing water throughout the region and planning to diligently monitor water throughout the area after mining activity commences. The most likely environmental challenge confronting the mining group is their environmental safeguards are so technologically advanced that their water discharges are likely to be cleaner and purer than surrounding waterways. To address this, they are planning ways to mix area sediments into their water discharges to perfectly match area water quality.
The deposit sits on land owned by the State of Alaska. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation will oversee any mining operations, in addition to a multitude of federal environmental agencies. Even in the absence of the Pebble Group’s diligent environmental stewardship, it would be highly unlikely for Alaska environmental regulators to allow mining operations that would cause substantial environmental harm. Federal rules and regulations appear to be overkill regarding proposed mining operations on Alaska state lands.
For such minimal environmental impact, the economic benefits are substantial. With all the attention justifiably given to the potential economic benefits of the Keystone XL pipeline, the economic benefits of the proposed Pebble Mine are potentially even greater.
The estimated value of the copper, gold and molybdenum at the site is between $300 billion and $500 billion. Much of the profits will remain with the Alaskan people, in the form of fees, taxes and royalties paid by the Pebble Group. Still more money will be paid to the federal government. Mining operations will create more than 2,000 high-paying jobs, including 1,000 permanent jobs. This economic bounty will benefit the entire U.S. economy, while the people of Iliamna would be the greatest beneficiaries of all.
During her visit to Alaska late last month, Gina McCarthy promised the Pebble Group that science would govern any EPA determinations regarding the proposed mine. If McCarthy is true to her word, expect to see approval for the most important new mining project in recent years, supported by environmental stewardship that is second to none.
James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.