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 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 did.
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 to be 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.
My first impression of the mining site was its isolation. The 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 people. Southwestern Alaska seemed especially vast and unpopulated.
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 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 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 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 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.
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 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, and the people of Iliamna will be the greatest beneficiaries of all.
During her visit to Alaska, 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.