Vol. 11, No. 44 Week of October 29, 2006
Providing coverage of Alaska and Northwest Canada's mineral industry

MINING NEWS: Pebble will face determined dam busters

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Permitting the largest dam in North America for proposed Alaska copper-gold mine will be a lengthy and controversial process

Sarah Hurst

For Mining News

Nothing’s been built yet, but Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty has already opened the floodgates to a torrent of discussion of the enormous dams the company proposes for the Pebble project. One of the tailings dams would reach an ultimate height of 740 feet and would be at least 4.3 miles long. The largest dam in North America, the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington, is 550 feet tall and almost a mile long.

Northern Dynasty had already come under fire before it submitted the proposal for five dams to Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources. The Renewable Resources Coalition, a nonprofit organization that is devoting strenuous efforts to oppose the Pebble project, published a report that responded negatively to Northern Dynasty’s revised water rights application, also submitted by the company to DNR recently.

The report is “a cynical attempt to masquerade anti-development politics as science,” said Northern Dynasty’s COO, Bruce Jenkins. “In its rush to judgment, the RRC didn’t even see fit to look at the information contained in our most recent submission,” he added. “More to the point, they’re reviewing these preliminary applications as if they are intended to fully describe the copper mine that Northern Dynasty is proposing to build at Pebble. This is a patently false premise upon which to assess these documents, and the RRC and its consultant have taken the opportunity to reach unfounded conclusions that are calculated to mislead and alarm Alaskans.”

Report by Coble Geophysical Services

Homer-based Coble Geophysical Services wrote the 4 1/2-page report for the RRC. The report asserted that the proposed diversions of surface water and groundwater from the Upper Talarik will create dry riverbeds, eliminating Sockeye spawning and Coho rearing habitat. “If sufficient water is not diverted to submerge tailings ... oxidation of mining waste can become a serious problem,” the report also said. “Contaminated reservoir water discharged to the Tailings Storage Facility Reservoir could flow underground from the South Fork Koktuli Watershed into the Upper Talarik Creek Watershed,” it added.

The true costs of reclamation of the Pebble project may never be quantified, the report went on. “The remote location makes regulation more expensive and difficult, even if the fees are addressed during the mine’s life through water rights fees,” it said. “Problems obviously can occur after ceasing water use. It is hard to predict who will regulate mine reclamation activity so far into the future (50 years). The state of Alaska does not generally plan that far ahead.”

Northern Dynasty: $42 million on environmental studies

“We have invested more than $42 million on environmental studies to date in order to establish the scientific foundation necessary to design a mine that can operate safely while preserving clean water, healthy fisheries and other natural values that Alaskans value,” Northern Dynasty’s Jenkins said. “We will continue in those efforts with the goal of submitting a comprehensive mine plan proposal in 2008 for the review and scrutiny of government agencies and the people of Alaska.”

Mining companies routinely file for water rights, according to Tom Crafford, large mine permitting manager at DNR, but it is unusual to file so far in advance of the mine permit applications, he said. Northern Dynasty has asked DNR to postpone its review of the water rights application until the other mine permit applications are submitted. The company expects the permitting process to take around three years, starting in 2008.

Engineering and environmental consulting company Knight Piésold produced the tailings facility documents that formed part of Northern Dynasty’s water application. The possible sites for the two tailings impoundments that are considered the least environmentally sensitive are a tributary of the upper South Fork Koktuli River area, a tributary of the North Fork Koktuli River, and along the upper reaches of the South Fork Koktuli River Basin, immediately adjacent to the proposed open pit mine development.

Pebble dams will have to meet state guidelines

Charles Cobb, the dam safety specialist at DNR, will be responsible for ensuring that the Pebble dams adhere to a 230-page set of state guidelines. For a project of this magnitude he will form a design review board, with specialists in geotechnical, hydrological and structural engineering, Cobb told Mining News. “It’s really old-school engineering,” he said. “The Hoover Dam is an exceptionally safe dam, so the concept of building a safe dam is nothing new.”

Seismic studies that Northern Dynasty must undertake will determine what size of earthquake the dams should be able to withstand, depending on the faults in that particular area of the Bristol Bay region. Even if there is a major earthquake, the dams won’t fail catastrophically; more likely there will be deformation of the structures, Cobb said. The largest dam in Alaska at present, the tailings dam at Fort Knox gold mine near Fairbanks, was “completely unaffected” by the magnitude 7.9 earthquake that ruptured the Denali fault in November 2002, he added. That dam is over 4,000 feet long and 320 feet high.

Overseeing tailings facility when mine closes another issue

Another issue for Northern Dynasty and DNR to deal with is how to oversee the tailings facility when the mine closes. This is a pressing question for Fort Knox, too, since that mine is due to close within the next few years. So far the mine has provided $1 million to maintain the tailings dam after closure, according to Cobb, but a decision hasn’t been taken as to whether the state or the mining company, Kinross, will be responsible for looking after the money. Red Dog lead-zinc mine in Alaska’s Arctic also has a tailings facility that will require dam maintenance and water treatment in perpetuity.

The failure rate for tailings dams is statistically higher than for water dams, according to the State of Alaska’s guidelines for cooperation with the Alaska Dam Safety Program. The guidelines illustrate this point with a quote from “Tailings Dam Failures — the Human Factor” by Alan H. Gipson, written in 2003. “When compared to water dams the current failure rate of tailings facilities is unacceptable,” Gipson wrote. “In my view the primary reason for the failure rate is that owners, engineers, designers and operators are not performing their work in accordance with the standards of practice that should be followed. Utilizing knowledgeable experienced professionals for policy setting, planning, design, construction and operation of tailings facilities ... can lead to the goal of zero failures.”

In November 2004 a tailings dam collapsed during reclamation work at Teck Cominco’s closed Pinchi Lake mercury mine in British Columbia. The accident released between 6,000 and 8,000 cubic meters of rock, dirt and waste water into Pinchi Lake. As a result, the Tl’azt’en First Nation announced a moratorium on new mining on its traditional territory. The impact to Pinchi Lake was “minor and very short term,” according to Teck Cominco.

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Public opinion stacks up for, against Pebble

In the Democratic primary election in the Bristol Bay region, Rep. Carl Moses lost to challenger Bryce Edgmon in a dramatic coin toss Sept. 25 after a recount and a decision in Alaska’s Supreme Court gave the candidates 767 votes each. Moses had served for 22 years in the Alaska legislature, but the Pebble project was the biggest issue in this election. Moses called for residents of the region to keep an open mind about the project, while Edgmon strongly opposed it.

In the Alaska governor’s election, the two leading candidates took different stances. Republican candidate Sarah Palin’s agent told the Renewable Resources Coalition that she was undecided about Pebble. Her oldest daughter’s name is Bristol, her husband was born and raised in the Bristol Bay region and they fish there every summer. Palin’s heart is in Bristol Bay, her agent said. “We do know of the proposed size of the footprint and I don’t blame residents for being extremely apprehensive about it,” the agent added. “We need to see the full proposal from NDM. We should not support a project that risks one resource over another.” Palin is committed to supporting job opportunities in rural Alaska, the agent said.

Democratic candidate Tony Knowles is opposed to the Pebble project. “The Alaska Constitution requires that development of Alaska’s resource wealth be consistent with the public interest and provide maximum benefit to all Alaskans,” he told the RRC. “This project does neither. An open pit mine at the headwaters of the most productive commercial salmon fishery in the world would be like a stake through the heart of Bristol Bay. It is not consistent with the public interest, would not provide maximum benefit to all Alaskans and threatens a renewable resource that sustains Alaskans both culturally and economically.”

Bristol Bay Native Association opposes mining

The Bristol Bay Native Association’s board of directors passed a resolution Sept. 29 “opposing all large scale mining in the Bristol Bay Region until studies unequivocally prove there will be no net loss to subsistence, commercial and sports users.” The BBNA is an Alaska Native non-profit corporation and tribal consortium serving 31 tribes in the Bristol Bay region.

“The BBNA Board of Directors believes that large scale mining carries too many risks to our existing resource-based economy and way of life, and that the Bristol Bay Region is better served by economic development based on renewable resources,” the resolution said. It expresses concern about the impacts to “the largest wild commercial salmon fishery in the world, a world class sports fishery, and the resources our people have relied on for thousands of years for subsistence.”

An association of eight village Native corporations, Nunumta Aulukestai (Caretakers of Our Land), has also passed a resolution calling on state and federal leaders to protect the Bristol Bay region from foreign mining companies. In addition, five Bristol Bay tribes responded to Northern Dynasty’s application for water rights by writing to DNR asking the agency to place a five-year moratorium on accepting future applications for water withdrawals for large mining projects, and to establish a protected fish and wildlife resource area in the Nushagak-Mulchatna and Kvichak drainages, including the area subject to Northern Dynasty’s applications.

Northern Dynasty received a boost from 19 commercial and subsistence fishermen from the Bristol Bay region in the form of a letter dated Sept. 6 that supported the mining company’s request for people to withhold their decisions until the permit applications have been filed. “The Pebble Mine project near Iliamna can provide an alternative way to earn income for the local people,” the letter said.

“That mineral development could bring lower costs of transportation and energy to the Bristol Bay in the future,” the fishermen continued. “However, it must be done safely without harm to the fish and wildlife of the area. Salmon can never be negotiated away. Constant vigilance must be taken so that the salmon will not be harmed. ... There is a media campaign to stop the process before the studies are complete. We feel that due process must be exercised. NDM must be given an opportunity to complete its studies.”

—Sarah Hurst

Mining News North - Phone: 1-907 522-9469
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