Tonight (Sunday), on the eve of a major public forum concerning the Pebble Mine, Pebble opponents are saying they're deeply concerned over apparent discrepancies in Pebble's $120 million dollar environmental study on its own proposed project.
That project -- if approved -- could become one of the largest open pit mines in North America. Documents on hand with the S-E-C indicate the pit could be one mile deep and 3 miles wide. The Pebble Limited Partnership would mine gold, molylbdenum and copper.
Today former Alaska Senator Rick Halford showed Channel 2 News a written statement from Dr. Carol Ann Woody, a fish biologist who's been working with "The Nature Conservancy".
Woody was featured in a PBS/Frontline documentary on Pebble that aired earlier this summer, and has been studying salmon streams in the Bristol Bay region extensively.
In the document, Woody says that Pebble may be underestimating salmon populations -- in streams that will be affected by its mines a thousand-fold.
In the document Woody writes, "Alaskan consultants initially hired by Pebble estimated hundreds of thousands of salmon spawn in streams draining the deposit." But Woody says that Pebble and the original consultant parted ways. It was apparently replaced by a new firm. Woody goes on to write, "the Outside (sic) consulting firm PLP (Pebble Limited Partnership) later hired to replace them, however, estimates only hundreds of spawning salmon."
If Woody is correct, there is simply no accounting for the vastly different estimates of the number of salmon in potentially affected streams. Keep in mind, underestimating something by a factor of a thousand constitutes a difference of 3 orders of magnitude. It's like saying the 1250-foot-tall Empire State Building stands just over a foot tall.
It's that vast discrepancy that has Pebble critics deeply concerned tonight.
Reacting to Woody's report, Salmon Ecologist Sarah O'Neal said, "The estimated numbers of salmon dropped considerably between the two different consulting firms". "Tt's concerning", she O'Neal added.
And former Alaska Republican State Senator Rick Halford said he was worried too.
"Well, of course it's my fear that this process is controlled by advocates," Halford said. "So it's not really going to be science as much as it's going to be promotion. And I'm sad to see that."
Pebble Mine officials were not immediately available for comment Sunday night.
But in the past, John Shively -- the C.E.O of the Pebble Limited Partnership -- has promised that if the mine could not be built without harming salmon, it would not be built at all.
Pebble has drawn fire because of it's vast size. It would be the largest gold, oil and copper mine in North America. Three times larger than any other mine of its type on the continent according to former Senator Halford.
It would also be larger than all the other mines in Alaska combined.
Shively has said in the past that such comparisons are simply not valid. Critics who point to such a massive mine are assuming that the entire ore deposit of moybdenum, gold and copper will be extracted -- a process that would take over a century. Pebble is only applying for a 20-year-permit. The ultimate scale of the mine is still far from certain.
Nevertheless, Pebble would sit in the watershed of one of the greatest wild salmon runs in all the world. More than 30 million strong each year. Many people feel that salmon run is so large because Bristol Bay is an intact ecosystem -- undisturbed by industrialization.
They fear that Pebble, with its massive size, would disrupt that ecosystem -- creating an infrastructure that would encourage other miners to open shop in the watershed.. Ultimately turning the entire region into a mining district.
A recent Watershed Assessment -- commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- indicated that the likelihood of a pipe slurry rupture during Pebble's operating lifetime was extremely high. It also indicated that if the mine went to a full century of operation, exploiting the entire metal reserve available there, it would require a tailings impoudnment facility (maybe 2 of them) standing 700 feet tall and covering several square miles. The impoundments would hold billions of tons of tailings (this is based on documents for a hypothetical mine filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission).
The EPA says this impoundment, which would be covered with water to keep the pulverized tailings from blowing around and contaminating streams, would have to last "in perpetuity." It could not fail. This summer, a scientist on an E.P.A panel reviewing Pebble said there are indications that the tailings can remain toxic anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 years.
That's why so many people are concerned about Pebble. The impoundment dam would be located in a seismically active area. In addition, Pebble sits in a wet climate. And "hydrologic failure" -- a damn becoming so overfilled with water that it breaks -- is the major cause of failure of impoundment dams.
This week Pebble will bring in a consultant called Keystone -- from Colorado -- to preside over a public forum on Pebble's environmental impact. The meetings will be held in Anchorage.
Keystone specializes in bringing parties together and resolving differences on environmental matters.
Pebble's critics will be on hand, pointing to what they say are serious discrepancies in Pebble's environmental studies of the project -- such as the wildly varying estimates on salmon populations in affected streams.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has the power to -- in effect -- shut down Pebble by ruling that it cannot comply with the Federal Clean Water Act, is still studying the proposed mine. The agency expects to issue a final Watershed Assessment report later this year.
Contact Dan Fiorucci