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Vol. 19, No. 35 Week of August 31, 2014
Providing coverage of Alaska and Northwest Canada's mineral industry

Mining News: Mount Polley spill could ease Pebble fears

The mine tailings dam breach in British Columbia suggests that effects of a similar event in Alaska would be modest and limited

J. P. Tangen

Special to Mining News

The recent dam breach at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia has precipitated a bit of consternation among the Pebble Project watchers on both sides of the issue.

Predictably, the naysayers have adopted an “I told you so” response, as if there are relevant similarities between what was constructed at Mount Polley, on the one hand, and anything that might be installed at a future mine at Pebble on the other; while the supporters of Pebble although mourning the event, take comfort in the knowledge that the substantial distinctions between anything that might be licensed at Pebble and what failed at Mount Polley are so significant as to make it no precedent for concern.

Obviously, the unwashed masses are going to be befuddled by the second flood – the deluge of words that Pebble adversaries will unleash; however, even in America sometimes truth can prevail over politics.

First, according to all of the reports that I have seen, no one was killed or injured at Mount Polley as a result of the Aug. 4 event. It is not clear that even any fish were killed. The water that was released, while laden with silt, does not seem to be toxic to man or beast in any significant way, and the vast bulk of the silt seems to have precipitated out of the floodwater fairly rapidly.

The deposition of tailings pond silt, while extensive, may arguably impact some fish habitat; however, that impact should not be expected to be persistent for an extended period. In the greater scheme of things, it will appear as a thin, local geological layer, reminiscent of many other natural occurrences.

Second, and perhaps this is more of a similarity to Mount Polley than a distinction, the dam burst occurred in a remote area where the impact on the local population will be small because the number of local residents is small. Without suggesting that rural residents are in any way less important than their urban kindred, if one must travel by air or water a considerable distance just to survey the damage, by definition, the human impact is small.

Third, again more of a positive comparison than a contrast, Mount Polley was producing copper and gold, which our society demands. Pebble, one day, may likewise produce such commodities to necessarily supplement the world requirements of a power-hungry world.

Fourth, the dam that failed at Mount Polley could probably never be built in Alaska under the current regulatory climate; and it certainly would not be operated in a similar fashion. Simply put, the regulations and oversight requirements governing a future mine at Pebble are substantially more stringent than those currently in place in British Columbia. To its credit, the provincial government was all over the spill as soon as it occurred; however, in Alaska the responsible government agencies are all over large mine projects before they are designed.

While our modern-day “Chicken Little” wannabes may be expected to cluck wildly about this recent turn of events, the sky really is not falling and the Fraser River salmon runs will be fine if any fishermen let them get to their spawning grounds. Mount Polley has been described as a disaster or even a catastrophe that proves once again that _______ (government / business / modern science – fill in the blanks) cannot be trusted with our ______ (welfare / environment / anything else – fill in the blanks). It is neither. It is albeit a large event that will be accompanied by a great deal of sound and fury signifying nothing.

The engineers associated with the Pebble Project can, and undoubtedly will, detail the design factors that distinguish the Mount Polley dam from any dam that may be constructed at Pebble and the endless documentation that will be generated at every stage of the permitting process will go into great detail as the relative size of the impoundment, the exact nature of the pent-up water, the composition of the silt and every other detail.

However, the take-away from the Mount Polley event is simply this: Even a massive escapement into the headwaters of the Fraser River show virtually no perceptible risk of impact on that massive fishery. The concerned citizens of Seattle, the home base of the Bristol Bay fishing industry should take great comfort from the Mount Polley experience.

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