Pebble mine could be another Red Devil

Shannyn Moore

Ever had a boss so hard to read you didn't know if you were going to be fired or promoted? Mixed messages on a daily basis? It's horrible. How are you supposed know what to do?

A relationship in which you don't know if you'll be hit or hugged is much worse. "Can't you just be a jerk all the time? It would make things so much easier."

It's the back and forth, the uncertainty that make these situations unbearable.

That's why I feel bad for the folks at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Oh, before you start calling me a bunny hugger, hear me out.

When nine Native tribes, a Native corporation and a multitude of fishing groups pleaded with the EPA to do a clean water assessment of the proposed Pebble mine, the EPA accepted. A study began.

The Legislature had appropriated $750,000 for a similar study. The governor had even signed off on it, although not a dime was ever spent. No study. No science.

Then came Gov. Sean Parnell, his attorney general, a plethora of industry hacks and the KGOP sock puppets crying foul. Just who does the EPA think it is? Big government! Attorney General Michael Geraghty said the EPA was "unlawfully preemptive, premature, arbitrary, capricious and vague." Strangely (and not for the first time), he referred to the prospect of a Pebble mine as "hypothetical."

I'd say the idea that Gov. Parnell is working for Alaskans rather than the mine promoters is a lot more "hypothetical."

But then "Get out, EPA!" and "Go away, EPA!" quickly morphed into "Help, EPA! Come on over STAT!"

The Red Devil mercury mine is a disaster -- so much so that the governor directed his attorney general to ask the EPA to list it as a super-polluted superfund site.

EPA staffers are wearing neck braces from the whiplash.

The mine is on the Kuskokwim River and Red Devil Creek. In 1933, a 10-year-old boy discovered the deposit while berry picking.

Although once one of the largest mercury mines in the country -- it produced 2.75 million pounds of liquid mercury -- no investigation has been able to uncover its current ownership. The open pit mine has been closed since 1971, the profiteers long gone.

Yes, the profits of this public resource were privatized to corporations, while the contamination and cleanup was socialized to taxpayers -- to the tune of $10 million in public funds over the past 25 years.

When the mine permits were declared "Abandoned and Void" in 1987, the federal Bureau of Land Management took over. The agency has been remediating and testing fish and toxin levels. Multiple meetings in villages and in Anchorage were conducted in 2009 to discuss the health effects.

See, the mine tailings weren't left in very good shape and the soil around them contains processing chemicals and highly toxic PCBs. Also found: "extremely elevated amounts" of arsenic, antimony and 52,000 times the state Department of Environmental Conservation's standard for mercury.

Last year the state warned local women and children about consuming pike and burbot. They offered "free mercury testing" for females on the middle Kuskokwim and advised women and children to eat salmon.

"Mercury is a toxin that, at high levels, can damage the brain and other organs. Because they are still developing, young children and fetuses (unborn babies) are more sensitive to mercury than adults."

According to the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, there are 6,830 abandoned hard rock mines in Alaska. For most of them, including Red Devil, no "financially viable responsible parties" are known.

Our governor, in his spastic, whiplash messaging toward the federal government, is getting a bit embarrassing. On the one hand, he wants the Feds to get out of state business when it comes to projects he supports -- like the extremely controversial Pebble mine. On the other hand, he snaps his fingers and demands the federal government come clean up toxic tailings of mines long abandoned. (Oh, and please, federal government, come manage development on our coasts too.)

What Alaskans need is a boss with principles he can apply two days in a row. A non-schizophrenic leader who works well with the federal government and recognizes that if the Feds are good enough to stick with the bill for cleaning up toxic abandoned mines, they ought to be able to offer an assessment of whether a proposed mine at the headwaters of the largest wild salmon run on the planet is a future Red Devil.

By the way, Pebble fans may want to note that 2012 is the 100th anniversary of the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, 10 times more powerful than Mount St. Helens, and it occurred in the Bristol Bay watershed, not far from the site of the proposed Pebble mine.

You'd think an Alaska governor would remember the catastrophic 1912 eruption of Mount Katmai and Novarupta, and thank the EPA for considering the consequences of another one for a Pebble mine.

Shannyn Moore can be heard weekdays from 6 to 9 p.m. on KOAN 1020 AM and 95.5 FM radio. Her weekly TV show can be seen Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. statewide on ABC affiliates KYUR Anchorage, KATN Fairbanks and KJUD Juneau.

Shannyn Moore