Pebble Mine assessment based on shaky science, lack of information, say fisheries researchers

When Dr. Daniel Schindler and his students at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences took a deep dive into the Pebble Mine draft environmental impact statement, they found some barbaric details. In one subsection, for example, the document spins fuel spills as a positive because their cleanup could create local jobs. And while a layman can take issue with such a claim, it takes more expertise to uncover some of the shaky science in the statement, a nearly 1,500-page document released in February this year by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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Schindler and around 10 university students, including Professor Emeritus Frieda Taub, picked apart sections from the document that lined up with their areas of expertise.

“The reality is that no one is paid to sit around and critique these things. If (a scientist) writes a paper that we want to publish, it goes out to peer review, and unless you can get a handful of scientists to say that it’s legitimate, it never gets published.

In the case of an environmental impact statement, there’s no formal peer review,” said Schindler, who spends his summers researching in Bristol Bay, not far from the proposed Pebble Mine.

He pointed out that the University of Washington’s Alaska Salmon Program was in part created to monitor Bristol Bay salmon runs, and has been sending researchers to count fish and study salmon ecosystems there since 1946.

“Obviously, our specific information about Bristol Bay provides insight while we read this, and then some of it is just general knowledge of how salmon ecosystems work,” Schindler said.

One of the main sticking points of the Corps’ EIS is that it examines a scaled-back Pebble Mine that would have a 50-year life span, with only around 20 years of actual mining.

Meanwhile, the mining company, Pebble Partnership Ltd., still seems to be focused in the long term on a mine that would be active for closer to 75 years. Many of the features of the mine, such as a the toxic tailings and an earthen dam to retain them, would exist in perpetuity.

Sean Brennan, a postdoctoral student who works on western Alaska salmon ecosystems, tackled the geohazards section of the statement, and concluded that the risks of earthquakes and global warming were grossly underestimated, in particular on tailings dams.

“There’s a huge problem with assuming a design life of 50 years, when in reality these features are on the landscape forever, and pose a risk and a threat to the ecosystem and all the human communities in the surrounding area forever,” Brennan said.

Brennan explained that the EIS puts the possibility of a tailings dam failure at 1 in 10,000, and therefore does not assess the environmental impact of such a failure. An independent analysis on a tailings dam failure by Dr. Cameron Wobus and Lynker Technologies looked at the risk over a more realistic 100-year period, and put the chances of failure at 1 in 5. By Brennan’s extrapolation, the risk could be even higher.

“This is one of the most tectonically active places on Earth, an area that is rapidly changing because of global warming in the Arctic. I mean, if this dam is going to be there forever, you could almost say there’s a 100 percent chance of an earthquake and major flooding,” he said.

Wobus also mapped what might happen if a tailings dam failed and found that some currently inhabited areas would be buried underneath 15 meters of sediment.

“That’s for the bulk tailings, not the pyritic tailings. For the pyritic tailings — the really nasty stuff — they claim they’re going to move them back to the pit, and they are going to generate some acid mine drainage,” Schindler said.

But, Schindler added, if they plan to continue digging for 75 years, moving the pyritic tailings back to the pit is not an option, and the report does not specify an alternative.

Taub, who specializes in water quality, said while the EIS admits with “100 percent certainty” the mine will create acid mine drainage, it does not provide a plan for monitoring or mitigation.

“They dismiss acid mine drainage as long as it’s underwater. That may delay things, but it’s not a permanent solution. They mention in a couple places that there’s going to have to be monitoring and control in perpetuity, but I don’t see any mechanism for doing that. And we have reports that say once acid mine drainage starts, there’s no way to stop it,” Taub said, again highlighting the report’s short timeline: “It’s just like, we’re going to do a 20-year mine, or maybe 50, or 70, and then we’re going to walk away. So many mines right now are public responsibility, and there’s really no way to clean them up.”

Taub added that tests have already turned up highly acidic water at the proposed mine site —“A pH of 3.3, vinegar,” she said — and Bristol Bay’s ecosystem has low alkalinity and low dissolved organic carbon, which makes it difficult to counteract the acid and detoxify copper.

Two other students, Bob Oxborrow and Kerry Accola, found deficiencies in the assessment of how the destruction of a large swathe of wetlands might affect the greater ecosystem.

“I was really surprised at how nonscientific my section seemed to be. One example is that the EIS states ‘changes in the riparian wetlands would likely not be detectable downstream from the mine site.’ Well, we know that’s simply not true,” Accola said, while Oxborrow added that fragmentation, or what happens when interconnected wetlands are isolated, was not addressed.

Accola also turned up concerns about authorship of the report, particularly on a section about a proposed natural gas pipeline across Cook Inlet.

“The section said it would all be fine, and that pipeline and the riprap associated with the port would be quickly colonized by marine life. It was all pretty cavalier, but then I found that the primary author of that section was an employee of the company slated to build the pipeline,” she said.

Schindler added that there were concerns about sourcing, and pointed to at least one instance in which the EIS had cited an Alaska Department of Fish and Game report out of context and used another draft EIS as a technical reference, essentially layering unscrutinized information.

Each student in the seminar is in the process of writing up their findings, which they will send separately to the Corps, with an overarching letter from Schindler.

“It will be interesting to see how they respond to our letters. They’re going to have to answer some very technical questions,” Schindler said.

The Corps extended the public comment period for the EIS until June 29, 2019.

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Brian Hagenbuch is National Fisherman's products editor, a contributing editor to SeafoodSource and a Bristol Bay fisherman. He is based in Seattle.

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