Northern Dynasty Mines meeting review
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November 15, 2006 presentation to Seattle fishermen
This was a 2-hour presentation filled with a lot of information. There's no way I can cover it all here, so I encourage you to listen for yourself.
Click here to download an audio file of the whole thing. (warning, it's an 80mb file)
Statements italics are my own thoughts and comments. The rest is an attempt to summarize what occurred at the meeting.
Speakers: Mike Smith (Permitting), Bruce Jenkins (Northern Dynasty COO), Stephen Day (Water quality), Ken Brower (Knight Piesold engineer), Jim Buell (Fisheries).
Permitting - Mike Smith
67 major permits will be required for the Pebble project, and it will be at least a year until the major permitting starts.
One of the major applicable laws is the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
This triggers an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as part of the process.
NEPA doesn't require that there be no environmental impacts, or even that these meet a certain threshold.
It merely requires that the person who signs off on the development project understands the environmental impacts
"There's a direct correlation between the level of public concern and the length of the permitting process"
- quote from Mike Smith
All the speakers put a lot of emphasis on the rigor and thouroughness of the permitting process, and how the concerned public should just "wait and see" what comes out of that permitting process.
But what this comment seems to indicate is that permitting is only as thorough as we make it.
Rather than "waiting and seeing", we should raise our concerns and objections now, to ensure these all get a thorough environmental review.
General overview - Bruce Jenkins, COO
He talked a lot about the economics.
As of 2006, Northern Dynasty has spent 132 million dollars on Pebble exploration, 1/3 of this on "environment and community relations".
Most of the recent exploration has been in the Pebble East deposit, which has a grade of ore 3 times higher than Pebble West.
Total there are 150-200 billion dollars of minerals in the ground at Pebble (which wouldn't all be recoverable, of course).
We should expect a combined "Integrated Development Plan" for Pebble East and Pebble West by the end of 2007 at the earliest.
Bruce Jenkins claims to have over 30 years of experience in these kinds of projects.
Pebble is committed to being a good neighbor and gaining social license for its project, but it "takes time to earn that trust".
He stated that problems with mines are only with old mines, or those in third world countries with less stringent environmental standards.
This was demonstrated by an example photo of someone catching a fish from a tailings seepage pond at the Canadian Gibraltar mine.
$132 million spent, $150-200 billion in minerals at stake... If this mine doesn't go through, Northern Dynasty has an awful lot to lose.
I think it's prudent to keep this enormous motivation in mind when evaluating their claims about Pebble's safety.
Jenkins touted Pebble's large "community relations" budget and efforts. However, it's not neccessarily a good sign that they need a large budget to convince the locals to agree with them.
I'd like to know what specific mine projects Jenkins has been involved in for 30 years, so we can see what happened for ourselves.
There are new mines in the U.S. and Canada that have caused major environmental problems (Summitville, 1980s, Gilt Edge, 1988, Grouse Creek, 1994, Jordan Creek, 1997, etc...),
The issue of mining's track record is an interesting one that I'll discuss further below.
Water quality - Stephen Day
He's the lead geochemist on the project, and says he's been working on this sort of thing for 17 years, on many similar sites.
In his opinion, mines started being designed better in the 1980s, and mines opened since then have better environmental records.
The main thing he talked about was Acid Rock Drainage (usually known as Acid Mine Drainage), where pyrite, when exposed to water and oxygen, reacts to form sulfuric acid.
In addition to making streams more acidic (a big problem for fish), acid dissolves other metals (also a big problem).
At Pebble, all the rock that contains the metals is potentially acid-generating (contains pyrite), but there's some other tertiary rocks above the Pebble East deposit that isn't.
He says the best way to prevent acid generation is to bury acid generating rock and tailings underwater, where they can't get any oxygen.
And if that doesn't work, you can build treatment plants.
He claimed that the Red Dog mine has improved water quality in the creek there.
Throughout the presentation, he emphasized how much experiece he and others had with this sort of thing, and how that "should give you some comfort".
This August, a federal judge ruled that Red Dog Mine had violated the Clean Water Act over 600 times. This seems inconsistant with the statement that Red Dog has improved water quality.
Though "Acid Rock Drainage" is a natural phenomenon, it normally occurs very slowly through erosion.
The reason Acid Mine Drainage is a big problem at mines is that mines grind up very large amounts of pyrite-rich rock.
It would take thousands or even millions of years for natural erosion to grind up as much rock as would be ground up at Pebble in a few decades.
As I noted before, Stephen's experience will only "give me comfort" if we have a comprehensive list of what projects he's been involved in.
Engineering - Ken Brower (Knight Piesold Consulting)
Ken blew through this talk really quickly since we were running out of time.
He talked about the design of the dams and tailing storage lakes, as well as the seismic risks.
The details of the designs are best found in the permits filed with the Department of Natural Resources
The basic idea is that the dams would be built in stages, out of the non-reactive rock sitting on top of the Pebble East deposit, and that the reactive rock and tailings would be buried underwater (water drained from Upper Talarik Creek and Koktuli River).
Earthquakes: Northern Dynasty has calculated that the maximum credible earthquake at Pebble would produce a ground acceleration of 0.3g, based on a 7.8 magnitude quake on the nearby Castle Mountain Fault.
This calculation is based on an 18 mile distance between Pebble and the epicenter of the quake, and the shaking at Pebble is hugely dependent on this distance.
This is why a 9.2 magnitude quake on the subduction zone fault (like the 1964 quake) is expected to produce much less shaking at Pebble, despite a much larger quake.
Tailings dam failures: Ken suggested that large earthen dam failures were so unlikely that he could not even come up with any good examples.
The actual end of the Castle Mountain Fault has not been studied much by geologists, and is very poorly known.
Rather than 18 miles away from Pebble, it could easily be 2 miles, 9 miles, or 30 miles.
Therefore, the shaking at Pebble could easily be several times more (or less) than predicted by Northern Dynasty
There are examples of catastrophic tailings dam failures at mines.
For example, a dam failure in 2000 in Romania, and in 1995 at Guyana's Omai gold mine, caused massive spills, killing all life in downstream rivers.
Since the Omai dam was originally designed by Knight Piesold (though it may have later been raised higher than design height by the mine company), it's unlikely Ken Brower, a Knight Piesold engineer, would never have heard of it.
Jim Buell - Fisheries
He tried to explain Northern Dynasty's "No Net Loss" policy for fisheries. He said that it doesn't mean that NDM is going to keep the gross number of fish the same.
If possible, losses are going to be compensated for in the same watershed, with the same species, and same stock. Or nearby (though he didn't say how near).
"No Net Loss" means that they'll first try to minimize impacts on fish stocks.
But he says it's inevitable that there will be harm to some fisheries.
So the next step is compensation for those losses.
He said that this doesn't mean hatcheries.
The options are "increasing the productive capacity of some habitats", "opening new watersheds to anadramous access" and "conservation management of large tracts of land".
It's not clear what "increasing the productive capacity of some habitats" and "opening new watersheds to anadramous access" mean.
Question and Answer period
The first questioner suggested that the presence of a mine might effect the marketing of Bristol Bay salmon, independent of its effect on those salmon, and asked Northern Dynasty to study this.
Northern Dynasty insisted it was studying this (marketing impacts were not mentioned in any of their environmental study slides), but that mines had zero effect on salmon marketing.
Will arsenic and cyanide be used?
Arsenic is present in the deposit, so it will be there. Northern Dynasty says it hasn't yet decided whether or not to use cyanide.
Will Northern Dynasty contribute infrastucture to the local communities?
They say that some of the power they'll bring over for the mine operation will be earmarked for local villages.
Why didn't we hear about this meeting?
A discussion followed about how the meeting was and wasn't publicized. Most of the people said they'd only heard through word of mouth.
Will there be mercury pollution from powering the mine?
Northern Dynasty says no, since they won't use coal. They plan to use Cook Inlet natural gas, through the Homer Electric Association.
Teck Cominco decided not to develop Pebble based on both environmental and economic reasons. Why do you think it's a good idea?
Basically, Northern Dynasty said that we found the richer ores where Teck Cominco didn't.
The next question involved an argument about the mining industry's track record. Bruce Jenkins insisted that "there are hundreds and hundreds of mines in the U.S., the vast majority of which haven't compromised the environment".
I provide an analysis of this claim below.
Mining's Track Record:
In the question period, this came up as a major point of contention between questioners (describing mining's track record as "pathetic") and Northern Dynasty officials (insisting that environmental problems occured only at old or third world mines).
It's easy for both sides to come up with examples to support their cause.
There are certainly some very new mines in the U.S. and Canada that have caused major environmental problems (Summitville, 1980s, Gilt Edge, 1988, Grouse Creek, 1994, Jordan Creek, 1997, etc...).
But Northern Dynasty can also find new mines that haven't yet caused any problems (like the Gibraltar seepage pond with the large trout from their example slides).
So lets look at some statistics.
This data comes from the EPA's most recent "Sector Notebook Project" report on the metal mining industry, from 1995.
For nine states, over a 5 year period, the EPA looked at unpermitted releases from mines.
These are releases of pollutants and contaminants not allowed by the mine permits. And as they do not include tailings dam breaches or spills of tailings, they are an underestimate.
Out of 237 mines in these nine states, 87 of them had unpermitted releases recorded by the EPA (37%). .
In another measure, the EPA looked at inspections and violations for the most recent year (1995).
This text is quoted from their report: "Over half of the facilities inspected were cited for a violation.
The metal mining industry also represented the greatest percentage of facilities with enforcement actions taken, at 19 percent." (relative to other industries)
This is despite the fact that: "The metal mining industry had one of the lowest numbers of inspections among those industries represented, as well as the highest average number of months between inspections."
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All content by Erin McKittrick, copyright 2006-2007. Contact me with comments or questions at mckittre at gmail dot com.
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Last modified: 2/11/2007