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Carey Restino: After Mt. Polley mine disaster, making a molehill out of a mountain

Carey Restino | Arctic Sounder
OPINION: Alaskans have done a great job of advocating for what they think is right when it comes to the risks of the mining industry on Alaska waters. But increased activity in the Arctic region means we must broaden our perspective.

Some people believe everything happens for a reason, that there are no coincidences. For opponents of the proposed Pebble mine in Southwest Alaska, Mount Polley is affirmation of that theory.

On the eve of the latest public hearings, as the Environmental Protection Agency seeks comments on its proposal to sharply limit any large mine development in the Bristol Bay area, the recently constructed Mount Polley mine in British Columbia suffered a catastrophic failure to its tailings dam. Water, debris and toxic contaminants such as metals and acid runoff spilled into creeks and lakes connected with the Fraser River, one of Canada’s most productive salmon rivers.

It is a dramatic blow to arguments that modern-day mine construction techniques are progressive and environmentally sensitive -- that today’s mines aren’t the same as those built generations before. It is devastating to watch the response of nearby residents as they try to understand the implications to their homes, livelihoods and the environment they hold dear.

These are people much like us. Many of them depend on the pristine environment around them to provide food and employment. Without their fish, many will struggle. If ever Alaskans had an opportunity to watch and learn from the tragedy of others, now is the time. The first lesson one can glean from Mount Polley is that the potential impact will be immediately diminished by politicians looking first and foremost to calm the public down. B.C. Mines Minister was in front of cameras right away noting that water readings indicated little pollution in the rivers and streams near the tailings dam collapse. The collapse would have a similar impact to an avalanche, officials said.

From a public relations standpoint, telling shell-shocked residents not to worry as they stared at their sediment-filled streams probably wasn’t a good move. First Nations residents were not taking officials’ word, and were collecting their own water samples, which is probably wise even if all it does is dispel the paranoia.

Unfortunately, the jury on the impacts of such a tailings dam failure won’t be in for quite some time, years, perhaps. This isn’t a new lesson for Alaskans. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, many were encouraged to see the environment returning to normal relatively quickly. But years later, fish populations that crashed never rebounded completely, in some cases. The environment is an intricate system of connections and dependencies, and any change has a ripple effect. Large changes, like tons of questionable debris entering the water stream, often have rather large waves of impact.

If by chance it turns out that this tailings failure doesn’t kill off excessive amounts of salmon, impact the drinking water of the region, and cause harm to those who live there, a third lesson stands. The claims by mining developers that they can virtually guarantee the safety of the facilities they are constructing are false. We don’t yet know what happened to the Mount Polley mine.

Some say a change in the way the tailings pond was used is to blame. Others question the design, which was designed by the same firm that designed the proposed Pebble mine tailing storage dam, Knight Piésold Ltd. The company was not working with Mount Polley at the time of the failure, having been replaced in its role as engineer of record in 2011. The new company had allegedly filled the dam higher than it had been designed to be filled. Other changes had been made, as well. But the parallels can’t be missed. There is no way to guarantee that mining mishaps and disasters aren’t going to happen.

In fact, the track record of mines in North America points in rather the other direction. And the simple fact is that even if a mining company has a stellar track record while the mine is in operation, the impacts to the environment -- such as tailings ponds, erosion and habitat destruction -- linger for decades after all the profit has been made. Few can guarantee that the next generation of company officials or political leaders will offer the same protections and investment as their predecessors. There are too many loopholes for that. The only way safe development will occur is if the people who care about the land and its future are intricately involved in the creation of the plans that develop it.

The other lesson that the Mount Polley tailings pond failure brings to light is how impacted we can be by our neighbors. Alaska tends to think of itself as relatively isolated, but on a global scale, that’s not so.

There is development occurring in the Russian Arctic waters and land, the Canadian Arctic waters and land. Ships are traveling past us daily and, of course, a flurry of activity is happening south of our border, which Alaskans may now be more aware of than ever before.

The bottom line is that Canada’s environmental policies affect us directly, especially for those who fish migratory species that indiscriminately share the waters of both nations. Alaskans have done a great job of advocating for what they think is right when it comes to the risks of the mining industry on Alaska waters.

But now we must broaden our perspective to include that of those around us if we truly want to advocate for the continued protection of the environment that has supported us for generations.

Carey Restino is the editor of The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared.

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