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Toxic Tailings Pond Breach in Canada Highlights Risks Faced by Proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska

Hundreds of people in British Columbia without water after billions of gallons of mining waste spill into rivers

This week’s devastating tailings dam failure at the Mount Polley copper mine in British Columbia sent an estimated 4.5 million cubic meters of mine waste solids and 2.6 billion gallons of mine waste liquids into streams, rivers, and lakes in the headwaters of the Fraser River watershed.  According to the CBC, the volume of the spill would fill approximately 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

It will be some time before we know the full consequences of this mine failure, but just the physical damage as shown by the video above, of the Canadian disaster means the ecosystem will take a long time to recover. In the mean time, area residents are advised not to drink their tap water.

It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between the Mount Polley Mine and the proposed Pebble Mine that would be situated at the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Both mines are large, open pit, copper porphyry mines at the headwaters of important salmon streams. Ironically, the company behind the proposed Pebble Mine, the Pebble Limited Partnership, has repeatedly pointed to the Fraser River as an example of a watershed where mining and fish can coexist.

Even more ironic, Knight Piesold, the firm that provided designs for the tailings pond lifts at Mount Polley, also provided the designs for the tailings pond for the proposed Pebble Mine.

While industry and regulators claim that tailings pond failures are rare occurrences, they happen more often than industry would like us to know.  In 2012, Earthworks released a peer-reviewed report that examined 14 out of 16 operating copper porphyry mines in the US representing 89 percent of copper production. We found that full or partial tailings dam failures have occurred at roughly a quarter of them.

Yet the mining industry, and certainly the Pebble Partnership, is often in denial about mining’s environmental impacts. 

Bristol Bay’s wild sockeye salmon fishery is the world’s largest. Almost half the world’s commercial supply of wild sockeye salmon comes from here. The fisheries here support 14,000 jobs and generate approximately $480 million in revenue each year.

To protect Bristol Bay, a unique coalition of groups, including Alaska Native Tribes, commercial and recreational fishermen, churches, jewelers, and chefs, created such a stir about the Pebble Mine that it compelled the US Environmental Protection Agency to conduct an extensive, peer-reviewed analysis of the potential impacts of large scale mining on the fishery. The EPA’s analysis concluded that large scale mining projects, like the Pebble proposal, would result in irreversible damage to the Bristol Bay watershed and fisheries. The EPA then decided to initiate the process to use its Clean Water Act authority to protect the salmon fishery by restricting mine waste disposal in the watershed.

Polley Mine sitePhoto by PressedRat/FlickrA view of Mount Polley mine before the spill. All mining companies promise an environmentally perfect mine, but mining’s track record speaks otherwise.

In response to EPA’s actions to protect Bristol Bay, Pebble backers have been claiming that accidents like tailings dam failures could never occur with this mine. The Pebble Mine, they say, would be too modern, and have too many safeguards in place.

In their submission to the EPA about the possibility of a tailings dam failure at the proposed Pebble Mine, the company includes technical comments by Knight Piesold – the same company that designed the Mount Polley tailings dam and pond. "Modern dam design technologies are based on proven scientific/engineering principles and there is no basis for asserting that they will not stand the test of time,” the statement said. 

But the Mount Polley mine is modern too. A comment by Brian Kynoch, the president of Imperial Metals, which operates the Mount Holley mine, in the wake of the disaster is especially illuminating in this context. “If you asked me two weeks ago if this could have happened, I would have said it couldn't," he told reporters at a press conference.

Imperial Metals isn’t unique in thinking this way. It’s standard practice in the industry to promise an environmentally perfect mine. But mining’s track record is far different.

Clearly, the EPA’s plan to restrict mine waste disposal in the Bristol Bay watershed is critical to the future of our nation’s most valuable wild salmon fishery. Following the Mount Polley disaster, Alaskans are calling on the EPA, with renewed urgency, to protect Bristol Bay's wild salmon fishery from the Pebble Project.

“We don’t want this to happen in Bristol Bay,” said Kim Williams, director of Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of Alaska Native Tribes and corporations. “With all the similarities between Pebble and the Mount Polley copper mine, we’re urging the EPA to take immediate action to finalize mine waste restrictions in Bristol Bay,”

All of this is happening just one week before the EPA holds hearings in Alaska, from August 12 to 16, to get public comment on their proposal to restrict mine waste in Bristol Bay waters. This is our last chance to officially tell the EPA to stop the Pebble mine — please act now!

Bonnie Gestring
Bonnie is based in Missoula, Montana, and has been leading campaigns at Earthworks reduce the destructive impacts of mining since 2001. Bonnie blogs at: http://www.earthworksaction.org//earthblog/byauthor/5

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