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A modest proposal for Pebble: Open minds and no open pit

Keith Searles
OPINION: The departure of Anglo American is far from the end of Pebble mine. Northern Dynasty should consider a more modest, less risky version of the project, and the people of Alaska should have open minds about a version of Pebble mine that's not an open pit.

When I first heard of the Pebble Mine, I was very much in favor of it and excited at an opportunity for my friends around Lake Iliamna to find good quality jobs close to home. The Bristol Bay commercial fishery puts a few of them to work for the short season and brings with it a pretty good infusion of cash, but not nearly enough. And when I lived on the lake, pretty much the only contribution sportfishing lodges made to the local economy were trespass fees paid to local land owners. Of the lodges I knew of around the lake, only one hired local guides. Good jobs are hard to come by around Lake Iliamna.

Before moving to the Alaska Peninsula, I worked in a couple of mines down in Southeast Alaska. Sure, the work was hard, but it was satisfying. For the most part, the miners I worked with were good people who appreciated the responsibility of caring for mountains they mined. I only worked with them for a couple years, but during that time I never saw or heard of any significant or long-term environmental impacts from the mines I worked in. So I figured an underground gold mine could be a blessing for the people living around Lake Iliamna. But, as the ore body was delineated and the mine grew from the small, underground mine I envisioned to a behemoth open pit, I changed my mind.

A small underground mine was one thing, but a huge open pit mine producing highly toxic tailings to be stored behind earthen dams was something altogether different. There would be too many opportunities for things to go wrong with a project of that scale and duration. The mine could easily have a lifespan of 75 to 100 years and would be accompanied by a slurry pipeline carrying concentrates some 100 miles around the north end of Lake Iliamna, from the mill site to Cook Inlet. More importantly, there would be two massive earthen dams meant to hold potentially toxic sulfuric acid-producing waste rock out of Lake Iliamna and the Mulchatna forever. Not just for a couple hundred years or even a few hundred thousand years, but forever.

Before the Pebble prospect was public knowledge, I lived on Lake Iliamna and guided high-dollar sportfishermen on the Kvichak River. One evening, a retired mining geologist staying at the lodge and I walked up to the outlet of the lake. As we stood there looking out across the lake towards the Koktuli Hills, I told him about the rumors I had heard of a mining company finding gold on the distant ridge. He told me that if there was gold up there, he would not want to find it. When I asked why, he replied that he didn't believe he would ever be allowed to mine it. Now, maybe he was just feeling overly protective since we had just spent the better part of a week playing in one of the world's great playgrounds. But maybe not. Lake Iliamna and the Kvichak River drainage is the most magnificent place I've been in my 40 years in Alaska. I once counted 27 brown bears while on a 4-wheeler trip from Newhalen to Upper Talerik Creek, where the Pebble Partnership wants to build a giant earthen dam for tailings storage. Accompanied by a couple sportfishing clients I spent the better part of a September afternoon watching a herd of 10,000 migrating caribou pass by. As the three of us sat there on a little mound in the open tundra, the caribou paid us scant attention as they passed all around us, sometimes only 10 or 20 feet away.

And then there is the Kvichak River salmon run. I had a number of sportfishing clients catch all five species of salmon in a single day. But, it is the red salmon run that is truly a natural wonder on par with the Grand Canyon and Mount McKinley. At the peak of the run a million-and-a-half fish a day swim past the village of Igiugig into Lake Iliamna. A person can see every one of them, the water is so crystal clear. While Alaska is full of special places, the lake country is something else and deserves special consideration.

Anglo American pulling out of the Pebble Partnership hardly ends the threat of a large scale Pebble Mine. The mining giant has shifted course a number of times in the past few years and has indicated it needs to concentrate on investments made elsewhere. The company has also been experiencing labor disputes and disrupted production at some of its mines in Africa. By the terms of the Pebble Partnership, Anglo American was required to keep investing or walk away. Its investment would eventually be billions of dollars while any return on that investment would likely be decades away.

In 1990 when I was working in the AJ Mine in Juneau, Echo Bay Mining Co. had already portaled in the Kensington Mine, a small underground gold mine about 45 miles north of Juneau in Lynn Canal. Another 20 years went by before the miners were able to clear all the legal challenges and actually start production. The Kensington was much smaller and nowhere near as contentious as the Pebble, so it is likely Anglo American just could not or would not afford to wait another 20 or 30 years to start production. Assuming it even got the necessary permits.

One idea broached by Northern Dynasty even before it formed the Pebble Partnership with Anglo American, was for a smaller underground mine to high-grade the richest gold deposits. The idea is reportedly supported by Rio Tinto, a major mining company that owns a little over 19 percent of Northern Dynasty and the Pebble Partnership. From what I have seen, the idea deserves a fair hearing.

Such a mine would have a relatively small footprint and allow Northern Dynasty the opportunity to recoup their investment and make some good money as well as provide much-needed employment opportunities around the lake. A small gold mine does not necessarily mean a big open pit is sure to follow. There is no way a large open pit mine can be operated without substantial risk to half the Bristol Bay watershed. With new, yet-undiscovered technology someday it might, but not now.

A much smaller underground mine might be safely and responsibly developed at the Pebble prospect and merits consideration and a fair hearing. The second of the two mines I worked down in Southeast Alaska was Greens Creek Mine, and based on what I saw there, I believe there is a good chance a similar mine could be developed at Pebble.

Greens Creek Mine is an underground mine on Admiralty Island. For the miners that work there it is a 45-minute boat ride out of Juneau, followed by a 45-minute bus ride to the mine portal inside Admiralty Island National Monument. Though it produces primarily silver, lead, zinc and gold, the ore in Greens Creek is geologically similar to the Pebble. Both are a mixture of nonferrous metals and sulfur, the ash and magma of ancient volcanoes. After milling the ore to extract the metals, the leftover tailings can, when exposed to oxygen, produce sulfuric acid and are highly toxic. At Greens Creek, these potentially acid-producing tailings are reburied deep inside the mine. In the middle of Southeast Alaska salmon country, Greens Creek Mine has been operating without significant or permanent environmental degradation since 1989.

If Rio Tinto or some other major mining company were to come along and partner up with Northern Dynasty to build a more modest, less ambitious underground mine like Greens Creek, I would be inclined to support the idea of Pebble. I at least support taking a fair, unbiased look at it. The Pebble Partnership has spent somewhere around $540 million on the Pebble prospect. All the data for their baseline studies is probably good science, and the delineation of the ore body is extensive. There is also the information gathered to draft the mine plan. Those are assets that should not be discarded out of hand. If Northern Dynasty comes forward with a plan to develop a small underground mine, we should consider it on its own merits.

We need to demonstrate that Alaska is open for mineral development, but only with rigorous oversight and restraint. A lot of people living around Lake Iliamna and throughout Alaska could use some honorable, good paying jobs close to home.

Keith Searles has lived in Alaska for over 40 years, both in rural and Bush Alaska as well as its three largest cities. During that time he has worked in a variety of Alaska industries and was editor of two Alaska weekly newspapers.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.