The Alaska Department of Natural Resources has come under criticism from a coalition of environmental group representatives and former state officials, who say the state agency’s oversight is not enough to police the effects of exploration and possible development of the Pebble copper-gold-molybdenum deposit in the Bristol Bay Region of Southwest Alaska.
In an article titled, “Pebble Mine: Fish, minerals and testing the limits of Alaska’s large mine permitting process,” the group examined the adequacy of the state’s large mine permitting process and found it insufficient to deal with a large metallic sulfide mine such as the proposed Pebble Project.
Published in the June 2008 edition of Alaska Law Review, the article was written by Geoffrey Parker, representing the Council to Renewable Resources Council, Trout Unlimited and Robert Gillam, Frances Raskin, a staff attorney for the environmental nonprofit Trustees for Alaska, Carol Ann Woody, a fisheries scientist who works with the Renewable Resources Coalition technical team, and Lance Trasky, a former regional supervisor of Region III of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Habitat Division.
Questioning DNR’s missionAccording to the article, the lead agency for all matters relating to the exploration, development, and management of mining is required by state law to “provide for maximum use of state land consistent with the public interest.”
However, DNR is more focused on managing mines than protecting fish, the authors contended.
“None of the statutes that are administered by DNR and that apply to permitting facilities related to Pebble Mine articulate clear standards for protecting fish and game, habitats, and public uses of them,” they wrote.
After studying the regulations, they also concluded that DNR should assist the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in its duty to “manage, protect, maintain, improve, and extend the fish, game and aquatic plant resources of the state in the interest of the economy and general well-being of the state,” it said.
State process consists of unrelated permitsWhile studying Alaska statutes concerning DNR’s role, the article’s authors said they found that “no statute requires DNR to approve the mine’s plan of operation. Instead, the state process consists of a series of unrelated permits,” they argued.
It is true that a large mine in Alaska typically can require 50 or more unrelated permits and authorizations from a minimum of eight different state and federal agencies. But the permitting process also is coordinated by DNR, which is in charge of the Plan of Operation, Reclamation and Bonding as well as permits related to many other aspects of a proposed mine.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ensure that a mine complies with strict federal and state laws governing water and air quality. ADEC also requires compliance with waste management regulations and bonding to ensure that mining operations adhere to the rules.
Dredge and fill rules are monitored by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps also enforces the Rivers and Harbors Act and is the lead federal agency for the protection of historical and cultural resources.
Three agencies oversee regulations concerned with the protection of fish and wildlife – the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. These agencies require a mine to comply with rules in at least nine different areas and issue nine or more authorizations, or permits, before a mine can be built.
The Alaska Department of Transportation, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Park Service also have regulations that a mine must adhere to before obtaining required permits.
The Alaska Department of Commerce and the Alaska Department of Law also are involved in the mine permitting process.
Thus, the Law Review article’s authors are correct in concluding that no statute administered by DNR applies to “protecting fish and game, habitats, and public uses of them.” However, several other federal and state agencies specialize in administering very strict regulations governing these areas.
In addition, DNR regulators cannot approve any mine without the blessings of the other 12 federal and state agencies involved.
Environmental studies requiredMines that require major actions from federal agencies such as EPA, the Army Corps and BLM fall under the National Environmental Policy Act (more commonly known as NEPA). Approval for a project the size and scope of the proposed Pebble Mine would be subject to NEPA.
When NEPA action is required, a federal agency, not DNR, takes the lead role in coordinating NEPA requirements. All mines that fall under NEPA require an environmental assessment of the impact of the proposed operation.
For various reasons, the federal agencies also may require a more extensive environmental study of the project and submission of an environmental impact statement.
An EIS incorporates information from a broad range of environmental and social factors involved in the development of a proposed mine. A typical EIS includes information on:
Surface and groundwater hydrology
Air and water quality
Fish and aquatic habitat
Wetlands and land use
Cultural resources and subsistence
Recreation, safety and feasibility
Noise and visual resources
Mine project owners often spend several years collecting information required for an EIS. Most of the data is collected by independent consultants and professionals who specialize in the various fields being studied.
Article questions integrity of EISIn the law review article, the authors also questioned the reliability of the federal NEPA process and the integrity of environmental impact statements.
“A groundbreaking study systematically compared predicted and actual water quality at hardrock mines operating in the United States, including in Alaska,” they wrote.
The 2006 report, “Comparison of predicted and actual water quality at hardrock mines: The reliability of predictions in Environmental Impact Statements,” compared water quality data included in the EIS for numerous operational and post-operational mines to their actual water quality data.
However, the only Alaska mine studied was the Greens Creek Silver Mine in Southeast Alaska. The study found that over a 12-year period, the operation at Greens Creek had not affected surface or groundwater quality.
According to a 2003 EIS, groundwater quality monitoring wells monitored from 1988 to 2000 have not indicated increasing metal and sulfate levels or acidity so far. Surface water quality monitoring similarly indicates no effects on surface water quality of Greens Creek, the study said.
Two other Alaska large-scale mines – Fort Knox, a zero discharge gold mine, and Red Dog, the world’s largest zinc mine, – were mentioned but were not reviewed in the study.
The 2006 report seems to indicate that the DNR-led Alaska permitting process in conjunction with NEPA is a model system for permitting large mines, according to government and industry officials.
Fish biologist seeks exploration answersLaw Review article co-author Woody, a biologist, also wrote a letter to DNR Large Mine Coordinator Tom Crafford, voicing her concerns about how exploration drilling at the Pebble copper-gold-molybdenum project might affect water in the area.
“The lack of transparency around drilling at the Pebble prospect raises questions by fishery stakeholders regarding both water and fish conservation,” she said.
As a fish biologist, Woody’s primary concern about the exploration activities at Pebble centers on the effects that drilling might have on salmon and salmon-spawning streams in the region.
Unfamiliar with the geology at Pebble, drilling practices at the project and the dynamics of acid rock drainage, Woody said she was concerned that exploration could potentially adversely influence groundwater quality in the area.
When Woody was unable to find answers to her questions on DNR’s Web site regarding how exploration drilling at the Pebble project might affect groundwater in the area, she wrote DNR seeking those answers.
In a 12-page response, Crafford gave Woody step-by-step instructions on how to find the information she was seeking. In addition, he told her that DNR files, including the Pebble Alaska Hardrock Exploration Application and Temporary Water Use Permits, are already available for public review. For Woody’s convenience, Crafford also attached a copy of the 2008 Pebble application filed by the project’s owners, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. and Anglo American plc.
“Drilling and sampling in regions of fractured rock aquifers, like Pebble, can cause, drastic disruptions of the natural water flow system,” Woody wrote in her letter to DNR, “Drilling into reactive sulfide ore, like Pebble, can cause sulfuric acid to form and thence mobilize heavy metals.”
In his response, Crafford explained how Woody’s view of drilling at Pebble was based on misconceptions about the geology of the Pebble deposit and its potential for acid rock drainage. He said her notion of Pebble being a “fractured rock aquifer” was inaccurate and since the bedrock is solid, disrupting the water flow was not an issue. He also explained that because of the depth of the mineralization at Pebble East – the current site of exploration drilling – the ore is not exposed to oxygen, which is necessary to create sulfuric acid.
“Not only is there ample evidence that oxidation and acidification are not issues in relation to the deep drilling at Pebble East, but it’s worth noting that nearly all of the drill holes are being plugged (sealed) with either cement or bentonite slurry after completion. The few holes that aren’t plugged are ones that are converted to monitoring wells or temporarily used as water sources for subsequent drilling,” Crafford wrote.
Owners release environmental dataThe complexities of Alaska’s permitting process and misconceptions surrounding the Pebble Project have caused many Alaskans concern about potential adverse effects the project might have on Bristol Bay’s lucrative sockeye salmon fishery.
“We have a very attractive prospect located in a very sensitive area,” said John Shively, president and CEO of the Pebble Partnership Ltd. “Everybody recognizes what the challenge is here. No matter what size or type of mine it is, you have to ensure clean water and fish protection.”
For this reason, Northern Dynasty and Anglo American have spent more than $90 million collecting environmental and socio-economic data to be used in an environmental baseline document needed to obtain regulatory permits.
In May the owners began making public a series of reports based on its pre-permitting environmental and socio-economic studies.
The reports are the culmination of data collected since 2004 from 45 professional consultants studying environmental and socio-economic conditions at the Pebble property and in the entire region.
Shively said the partnership will release the data it collects with little or no analysis over a period of months rather than all at once, because of the large volume of information and strict requirements for its quality assurance and control.
The Partnership’s environmental and socio-economic studies in and around the Pebble project are considered one of the most complete pre-development databases ever assembled in Alaska history. The information will be used to help design the Pebble project, facilitate project permitting, and establish a baseline for monitoring future changes.
“There’s been a high degree of public interest in the work that our environmental and technical consultants have been performing in the project area over the past several years,” Shively said. “And while we have always been open and willing to share the results of our work with Alaskans, the Pre-Permitting Environmental & Socio-Economic Data Report Series will formalize that process.”
“We believe that an informed public can make a very positive contribution to the development of a responsible mine plan at Pebble,” he added.
Since the launch of the series in May, the partnership has released reports on meteorology, surface water hydrology, surficial geology, and groundwater hydrology. Two additional reports are scheduled for release in 2008 – trace elements in sediments and soil and groundwater and surface water quality.
In 2009 the partnership will make public the results of eight more studies on trace elements in vegetation and animal tissue, fish and marine habitats, Lake Iliamna, noise and visual resources.
The partnership is also studying recreation, land and water use, wetlands, fish, aquatics and socio-economics. The companies say they will release findings of these studies in 2009 and 2010.
In addition, subsistence, traditional knowledge and cultural resource studies are under way in and around the project site, but the partnership said it considers this information proprietary to local residents and communities and will not release it to the general public.
“We believe that sharing our environmental and socio-economic data years before the onset of permitting, even before the Pebble Project is defined, will ultimately lead to more informed public input and a better project,” Shively said. “The scope and quality of the environmental and scientific studies we have undertaken will be a valuable and positive legacy for this region and the state as a whole.”