The Biggest Environmental Dispute No One Wants to Talk About

A proposed mining operation in a remote area of Alaska could radically alter the lives and livelihood of people in the region.

Take Part | Lawrence Karol

June 5, 2013
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The controversy over the Canada-to-Nebraska Keystone XL pipeline project has been in the news for a while now, most recently following an announcement that the Obama administration won’t make a decision on its fate until later this year.

Meanwhile, another important environmental dispute is occurring largely under the radar in southwestern Alaska.

Two mining companies, Northern Dynasty and Anglo American, want to build a gold and copper mine on the state’s Bristol Bay, an area that’s home to several Alaskan native tribes and has the largest wild sockeye salmon fishery in the world.

“The mining companies will tell you that they don’t know what all these environmental communities are so upset about because they haven’t yet issued a formal mine proposal,” says Alan Septoff, the Strategic Communications Director of the environmental nonprofit Earthworks.

He tells TakePart, “But there is an intention to mine, there are discussions about mining, and there are SEC filings where there’s concrete information about how they plan to mine.”

Despite the fact that the surrounding local community is overwhelmingly opposed to the project, Septoff notes that they didn’t want this to become a national issue. “They wanted it to be stopped based on the fact that it would seriously impact the native fishing industry and that the people impacted by the mine didn’t want it,” he says.

“But as this has gone on and on and it’s become clear that just the fact that the local communities are opposed has not been determinative, it’s become a broader issue and that’s why we’re hearing about it now.”

“We’re also at a juncture where there’s a national decision pending since the EPA is at the point where it’s deciding whether or not to use its Clean Water Act authority to prevent the dumping of mining waste into the Bristol Bay watershed,” says Septoff.

“It’s become a political football and there is a well-funded lobby effort on the part of the mining lobby to try and make it impossible for the Obama administration and the EPA to follow up on its assessment of the potential impact of the mine on the watershed,” he says. “Basically the assessment is that it would be hugely damaging and if it were not for the mining lobby it would be a no brainer for the EPA to say that this is no place to dump mining waste.”

“So my understanding is that the local community didn’t call in outsiders to try and counter the mining companies,” says Septoff. “What happened is that with a federal decision pending, environmentalists couldn’t just stand idly by, so outside organizations got involved because this is too big a deal.”

Septoff adds that one huge concern is that the mining companies would construct “an earthen dam that would hold back a lagoon of toxic mine waste,” he explains.

“This earthen dam would be built in a seismically active area and the history of this type of dam, called a tailings dam, is that many of them fail whether they’re in seismically active areas or not. This is a serious enough problem that the United Nations actually did a report on tailings dam failures.”

In terms of the mine’s potential economic impact, The Washington Post reported that the Pebble Limited Partnership—a joint venture of the two mining firms behind the project—released an economic analysis estimating that the project would generate 2,500 construction jobs during the five years that it would take to build the facility.

“The report by IHS Global Insight predicted that the companies would spend approximately $1.2 billion per year on direct capital investment and wages during the construction phase and that the mine would eventually generate up to $180 million in annual taxes and royalties.”

But Septoff says, “The facts of the matter are you’ve got a mine with a limited life and so limited economic benefits versus a sustainable fishery. When anyone in the U.S eats wild Alaskan salmon, this is where it comes from.”

“If you multiply it out over time, it’s just a matter of short-term economic benefits, where they say that the benefits would be more than the fishery” he adds. “But the guaranteed economic benefits of the fishery over time exceed the benefits of the mine.”

The EPA has extended the time for public comments on the impact of the project until the end of this month. So while you shouldn’t take your eyes off the XL Pipeline, it’s probably wise that environmentalists are also attempting to place the Bristol Bay project above the radar.

Tagged with: mining, bristol bay, alaska

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