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Look out, Pebble mine supporters, here comes the U.N.

  • Author: Bruce Switzer
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published October 1, 2014

The Pebble mine is officially now a comedic farce. I don't even know what name to call it. It can't be a partnership because the only "partner" is Northern Dynasty, whose shares are each worth 64 cents. It currently doesn't have any money, and as far as anyone knows its employees are a receptionist and a CEO who is a partner in a Washington, D.C. law firm who wouldn't know a trailer hitch from a front-end loader. I'll bet though, that he knows all about the investor-state articles of the North America Free Trade Agreement.

Let me recap. Four real companies, a copper smelting company along with three actual mining companies, collectively spent 20 or so years and at least $700 million trying to come up with a profitable mine plan for the Pebble deposit. What else did Cominco, Mitsubishi, Rio Tinto and Anglo American spend all that money and effort on? What they learned was that the cost of power, port, access, and labor is prohibitive, water management is a nightmare, and when all that is combined with a very low grade deposit, it isn't viable -- even when gold and copper were at record highs. Remember how Pebble said in 2008 and every year thereafter that a mine plan was coming next year? It never came because they couldn't come up with one.

The claims made by some environmental groups that Anglo and Rio bailed because of petitions they gathered is almost as farcical, although I suspect their opposition to the "Pebble Mine" has been good for fundraising. They didn't walk away because of the hated EPA either. The EPA was barely in the picture when Rio and Anglo were on their way out. All the EPA did was analyze a theoretical mining scenario and conclude that a mine in that location posed a risk to an important resource. Then they held open hearings to let everyone talk about it. That's all. Yet given the outrage this caused you would think ISIS had invaded Alaska. People in Bristol Bay were accused of nefariously conspiring with the EPA and "experts" from Canada and politicians from Alaska and all over the country were squealing about an "outrageous power grab" and an "insatiable lust for power" and calling for hearings and so on.

First, the Clean Water Act gives the EPA clear legal authority to do what they're doing, and good on them, I say. Second, the people in Bristol Bay have a right to speak out and to petition government. For those of you who know only about the Second Amendment of the Constitution, those are rights guaranteed under the First. Funny thing about the EPA, state governments and conservatives whine about it all the time and want nothing to do with it -- that is until they do. Take the Summitville and the Zortman-Landusky mines in Colorado and Montana. Using cyanide heap leaching these mines were high-graded until acid drainage and cyanide were pouring downstream. Then the Canadian owners declared bankruptcy and fled the country. Up until then the state governments would barely acknowledge existence of the EPA; it was about jobs you see. Suddenly, with Superfund sites looming, they couldn't get the EPA in fast enough. To date about $400 million taxpayer dollars have been spent on these sites that will require remediation in perpetuity. A mine at Pebble would dwarf both of these together.

So what is Northern Dynasty up to? It doesn't have a viable mine plan, no actual mining company has shown the slightest interest, yet along with all their enablers they are claiming the EPA has stopped them from proceeding with a mine. Their lawsuit against the EPA was laughed out of court after a "brief" hearing, as will any future action and they know it. What they are working on is another kind of mine plan. Call it mining for cash. They are laying the groundwork for action under the "investor-state" provisions of NAFTA and they have a whole gaggle of unwitting claques helping. Basically, the foreign investor rights rules of NAFTA provide a mechanism for a foreign company to sue the host country for lost revenue when laws and/or regulations negatively impact its investment. The special arbitration panel that hears these cases finds its authority under the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law, and it operates outside of the U.S. court system. That's right. The UN. And you guys are going nuts over the EPA?

As for the environmental organizations who claim they caused Anglo and Rio to head for home, you may want to focus more on the "Golden Triangle" in British Columbia where the government is building a power line into a collection of mine proposals along rivers just upstream of the Southeast salmon waters of Alaska. Most of these make the potential environmental impact of Pebble look insignificant, and for all intents and purposes there are no environmental regulations in B.C. or Canada. That's right, no EPA there.

Bruce Switzer Ph.D. is a mining consultant and has served as an advisor to groups opposed to the Pebble mine.

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.

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