Yeng Thao, Rebecca Thompson, Lloyd Petrungaro, Melina Ramirez, Alexandra Rodarte
As capitalism continues to be the primary ideology valued by our global economy, nations look for ways to acquire abundant resources for production in order to gain the most monetary and physical capital equating to productivity. This ideology of extraction for monetary and physical gain, rather than sustainability of resources that provide intrinsic value and necessities for life is at the core of the Pebble Mine controversy. The Pebble Mine is essentially a mineral exploration project in in the Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska. If the plan is permitted, it will be the largest open pit mine in North America. This open pit mine would be located in close proximity to the world’s most productive and valuable sockeye salmon fishery. It is home to 25 federally recognized tribal governments and contains large mineral resources.
The Pebble Partnership is owned by the company Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. They hold 100% mineral rights and want to construct the pebble mine in the form of an open pit mine. Their main pitch is that building this mine will power our nation’s green energy initiatives, bring jobs and infrastructure to southwest Alaska. They state that 80 billion pounds of copper is housed in the pebble deposit and it has the potential to meet approximately 33% of the U.S annual copper needs for many years. It is located in an ancient sedimentary basin known as the Kahiltna Terrane. They would have to build a deep water port and a transportation route to move equipment, people and supplies. After obtaining permits, construction would be a 4-5 year job and it would employ 2,000-4,000 people. Their new revised plan states, that their designs have been reduced by 50%, creating an environmentally friendly design. They claim that this reduced footprint have beneficial effects towards the transportation corridor. The benefits are less wetlands affected, dramatic reduction in culverts, stream crossings, bridges, and overall road area compared to a corridor around the lake. This revision has a minimized environmental impact.
Bristol Bay holds a porphyry copper deposit which is the largest undeveloped deposit of its kind in the world. Porphyry deposits form due to the Pacific Plate and the North American plate sliding beneath the other causing the oceanic plate to melt into magma. Then all the pressure that was built up, rises to the surface producing deposits like pebble. The Pebble Partnership states that the project will “provide an understanding of environmental characteristics as they exist today, on a physical, biological and socioeconomic level. Minimal impact on the ecosystem is the goal, so that day-in, day-out, the natural rhythm of the place is as unchanged as possible.” They also state that they have conducted “geological surveys, environmental Studies, and engineering evaluations.
The pebble mine would be active for 20 years and a century’s worth of minerals would be collected. The mine would eventually cease production, after obtaining all of the minerals and monitor the land for a minimum of 30 years to check on the wildlife. The Pebble Partnership published the Environmental Baseline Document, which is 5 year’s worth of scientific effort and the studies continue to be researched today. Their plan would be evaluated by the “US Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and various state agencies.” They would assess the proposal and decide if requirements to build the mine are met.
The claim was first explored by Cominco who conducted the initial sampling establishing there was profitable mineral deposits in the area. Bristol Bay is also where the rivers, Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds are located. They are the largest of Bristol Bay’s six major river basins and compose about 50% of the total watershed. One of these rivers leads to Lake Iliamna which is home to a very rare freshwater seal species only found (so far) in this region of the globe. It is also home to 29 different fish species, over 190 bird species, and more than 40 terrestrial mammals. Open pit mining does not require digging underground tunnels for extraction (aka longwall mining) but removes material from surface levels via explosives. It typically opens pit mines and is enlarged until all resources are extracted. It may be necessary at times to insert rock bolts/cable bolts to ensure surrounding rock is stable as this prevents rocks from collapsing into pit). Removing water from bores may be used to relieve water pressure by drilling horizontally into the wall- often times the cause of wall failure.
There pit mine poses several potential harms such as leftover waste ;tailings: mine clumps, climes, tails, refuse, and leach residue/slickens. Terrikon is pumped into tailing ponds, where water is reused or evaporated. This can be toxic because of presence of un-extracted sulfide minerals, toxic minerals left over in gangue, cyanide (used to treat gold ore through the cyanide leach process. Acids associated with metals/heavy metal extraction could take hundreds or even thousands of years to become acid neutral. Acid metalliferous drainage (AMD) contaminates water systems, habitats and top soils as it seeps into them and ultimately destroys them. This could potentially cause major impacts on not one region, but 6 major river basins. In the long run, Bristol Bay harvests, make up over 31% of Alaska’s overall fish harvests. Bringing in yearly, a total of 1.5 billion annually (give or take). If breeding grounds are destroyed, and habitats are too toxic, not only to spawn in but to live in, several species of animals will be lost, including the sockeye salmon.
Economics plays a major factory in this society. Pebble Mine is estimated to be worth $300 billion dollars of recoverable metals, most notably copper. The Pebble Mine Partnership claims Alaskans will benefit from the mining operations due to new infrastructure such as highways, ports and other facilities that will cheapen consumer products. The mine itself will support 4,500 jobs with countless other opportunities in the shipping and ore processing business throughout the country. The combined payroll of the whole process is estimated to be about $675 million. With an average salary of $100,000 per year, it’s hard to not to give the go-ahead. However, it is not as glamorous as it may seem. The ore from the mine is low quality ore; therefore, the most profitable and most efficient way to attract that resource is through open pit mining. All the waste from the extraction will be stored behind earth dams. This type of storage is prone to over saturation from water and eventually end in failure of the dam which will cause environmental disasters. Bristol Bay and its surrounding watershed is home to the highest run of sockeye salmon, about a whopping 45 million, which supports a fishing industry with a $175 million payroll. The bay also accounts for 40% of Alaska’s total salmon catch. Other wildlife call this region home as well, including 25,000 walruses and 10,000 brown bears that are vital to the tourism industry. Tourisms include cruises to visit the natural scenery and a world class hunting and fishing industry that accounts for $480 million. If you include all of the hidden costs in environmental disasters and the disruption of other industries, the cost will not outweigh the benefits. With no doubt, the mine will disrupt these industries. With an open pit mine, wildlife will be displaced from the surrounding area. Silt runoff from the mining operations will enter the watershed disrupting spawning salmon, possibly decreasing the salmon population.
We also have things to consider such as the accumulation of capital, constant monitoring of the waste, and metal recycling opportunities. Northern Dynasty, the leading funder of the project, is a mining firm with corporate headquarters based in Canada. Most of the profits will go out of the country with only a trickle staying in Alaska. The tax revenue generated is meager at best. Estimates put tax revenues of the lifespan of the mine at $11.5 billion from a mine that is thought to be worth $300 billion. This is because the mining industry in Alaska is taxed at 2.3% compared to 22.3% of the oil industry. During Northern Dynasty’s survey of the region, the mine was estimated to have a lifespan of only 75 years. However, the waste from the mine will linger long after the expiration of the mine; and once the claim for the mine is up Northern Dynasty will no longer be accountable to monitor the waste. That job will go to state and federal agencies to ensure the waste won’t contaminate spawning grounds that the salmon rely one. The monitoring will cost the taxpayers in the long run, and cost future generations who will be living with our decisions. If the current administration gives Northern Dynasty the go-ahead it will disrupt recycling opportunities for precious metals. The copper and other metals from the mine will flood the market bringing down prices low enough to make recycling not profitable enough to achieve.
The Pebble Mine conflict exemplifies one of many environmental movements that signifies a shift in the United States social mindset from supporting extraction economies towards supporting more sustainable production economies. Although extraction operations and the environmental impacts that follow in other nations is not as large of a concern for Americans, many of these social movements that focus on extraction within our nation is a starting point from which a more globally inclusive movement could gian momentum. This movement highlights many important issues such as the the marginalization of native peoples, the devaluing of local food security, and the pressures globalization and capitalism has on people in rural lands. However we found a focus on bridging the gap capitalism has created between society and nature to be of greatest importance within the Pebble Mine conflict. The health and well being of the salmon fishery is a measure of the health of the surrounding ecosystem. If we do not find a way to harbor a respect for nature in our homes and local communities we cannot value nature and the benefits it provides in more distant regions of our nation.
The Save Bristol Bay movement along with the Obama administration was an example of how community activism along with aligned government views were able value sustainability and natural resources over extraction and production. Although the current Trump administration is more aligned with the values of extraction and production, and has allowed the Pebble Partnership to apply for a permit, the Save Bristol Bay movement was successful in forcing the Pebble Partnership to redesign the specification and dimensions of the mines intended operations. This push to force large extraction corporations to actively consider their environmental impacts is also another success that has come from this conflict. Along with other movements such as the Dakota Access Pipeline a national ideology has begun to arise among citizens that shows companies they will not tolerate complete disregard for their communities and the surrounding environment for the sake of production.
This movement is lacking in spreading awareness in what is currently going on in Bristol Bay and there doesn’t seem to be one concrete group fighting against this issue. The only group that is cohesive in all of this is The Pebble Partnership which is for the mine being established. All of the organizations and Alaskan natives need to come together and form one big group to fight this issue together. They also need to spread awareness about this issue by creating a platform on social media so other people can become aware of what is going on in Bristol Bay. They have the opportunity to showcase the environmental impacts that mining causes and that there are more important economic opportunities already in place is Alaska that aren’t wreaking havoc on the environment.
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