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Mine waste storage and salmon runs, what could go wrong?

Shannyn Moore

There’s a game most of us play. It’s called “What Could Go Wrong?” You know, like, "I’m going to hand my 9-year-old an automatic weapon -- What Could Go Wrong?" Or, "Why not go bare-headed and drive a motorcycle really fast? What Could Go Wrong?" Then there is the always present, "Why don’t we build a giant mine at the headwaters of the largest sockeye salmon fishing run in the entire world? What Could Go Wrong?"

Many Alaskans have asked this question regarding the Pebble mine over the last decade. When the state government seemed to answer “nothing could go wrong,” tribes, fishermen and many others invited the Environmental Protection Agency to study and report.

I attended the hearing the agency held in Anchorage a few weeks ago. What could go wrong had indeed gone wrong at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia. A breach in the dam had spilled millions of cubic feet of toxic waste into a tributary of the Fraser River -- a salmon-bearing river. In a stroke of irony the town closest to the impact zone is named "Likely."

Many people testifying thanked the EPA for taking up the safety of our salmon runs in Bristol Bay, and I lost count of how many said, “Our hearts break for the people of Canada and their mine disaster,” or words to that effect.

We got our answer to the question.

See, the EPA has determined that a dam failure is possible -- Northern Dynasty does want to build it in one of the most seismically active places in the world. Oh, and it needs to last forever because sulfuric acid doesn’t have a shelf life. As author and former Bristol Bay fisherman Bill Carter notes, “In 1964, Alaska experienced the largest-ever recorded earthquake, which registered at 9.4 on the Richter scale. The industry standard is for a dam to stay structurally sound up to a magnitude-7.5 quake.” Um ... that’s math, folks.

In a Northern Dynasty submission to the EPA, Knight Piesold, the firm which engineered the dam structures and designs, weighed in. "Modern dam design technologies are based on proven scientific/engineering principles, and there is no basis for asserting that they will not stand the test of time."

Well, I guess the test of time was a pop quiz and Knight Piesold flunked it. They also engineered the failed dam at Mount Polley. We have a basis now. What's frightening is the largest Pebble mine scenario studied by EPA, which in not the largest touted by Pebble proponents, is an incredible is 94.7 times bigger than Mount Polley. Seriously. The capacity in cubic meters was 49.3 million for Mount Polley. For Pebble -- 4.67 billion.

What Could Go Wrong?

Oh, and here’s a real shocker -- Knight Piesold is saying it’s not their fault because they aren’t working for that mine anymore. Oops. Sorry about your bad luck.

The EPA has held hearings all over Alaska. They were asked by Alaskans to come here. We know what could go wrong and it is unacceptable. But for some reason part of our delegation keeps complaining about it.

As paranoid as Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young can sound when it comes to “federal overreach” they seem to be understanding the threat a failed dam -- even if in another country -- has on our fisheries. The failure at the Mount Polley has woken them up to join Sen. Mark Begich in asking for investigations and higher standards for mines in British Columbia that straddle our border. Southeast Alaska has a tremendous salmon run of its own, and it shouldn’t be threatened by Canadian development. Twenty-eight percent of Alaska’s salmon are from rivers that flow from Canada and into Southeast Alaska and the Tongass National Forest. The Boundary Waters Treaty was signed with Canada in 1910; basically it says we are not supposed to pollute each other's waters. It may be time to dust that thing off and use it.

One could argue a Canadian mining company shouldn’t be able to threaten Alaska fish stocks and wildlife within our own border either.

The EPA still needs to hear from you. The agency is accepting comments until Sept. 19. We know what could go wrong. Wrong mine. Wrong place.

Shannyn Moore is a radio broadcaster.

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, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com