The Bingham Canyon mine is a copper mine in Utah that is often compared to the planned mine in the Bristol Bay area by the Pebble Partnership, Pebble mine. When it existed, the town of Bingham was located in a narrow canyon that scarcely permitted space for a single row of houses and a road wide enough to turn around in. Eventually, the town would give up life itself when the mine grew so large that it consumed the entire town altogether. As of today the mine has been in production since 1906, and has resulted in the creation of a pit over 0.6 miles deep, 2.5 miles wide and covering 1,900 acres. In comparison, the proposed Pebble mine would be much larger with tailing dams over 700 feet high. (Far bigger than the Grand Coulee Dam).
“In its May/June 2011 Pebble Partnership Newsletter, the Pebble Partnership touted recent tours with “stakeholders” of the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah and the Cortez Hills mine of Nevada as examples of how mines operating under modern regulations are protecting themselves and the environment.”
On April 10th 2013, one of the world’s largest landslides tumbled 150 million tons of rock and dirt down the northeastern pit wall of Kennecott Utah’s Bingham Canyon copper-gold-molybdenum mine, likely becoming one the more expensive landslides in modern history.The U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the landslide unleashed 128 million cubic yards of rock and dirt into a pit nearly a mile deep, equal to about two-thirds of the material removed for the construction of the Panama Canal. Put another way, however, the largest landslide in modern history, the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, loosened 3.7 billion cubic yards.
Ted Himbaugh, General Manager of Operational Readiness was quoted as saying:
“It’s the largest slide we’ve ever had at the Bingham Canyon mine, and I don’t know if it’s the largest in Utah, but it’s a big slide. Where it ended at the bottom, it went a little further than we planned on. We we’re not expecting that it would cover that much area in the bottom. We didn’t know from our modeling that all that material would flow to the bottom.”
In fact, two-thirds of the bottom of the pit is now covered. Some cited that the mine rest on an ancient fault but this has yet to be verified. One thing is known and that is that the engineers who designed this pit did not include this in their plans. Neither did the latest computer modeling foresee the disaster nor the extent of damage that ensued.
Kyle Bennet, Kennecot Spokesman reported:
The Copper Mine was aware of the impending slide, engineers having detecting ground movement as far back as February 2013. This is something we had anticipated.”
Bennet said of the slide,
“We knew the slide was imminent. We had relocated machinery, we had rerouted roads, we had rerouted utilities, (and) we had relocated buildings.” (SOURCE: RENO MINEWEB)
Even with all of these efforts, the slide covered 13 large haul trucks an undisclosed number of large containers holding 83,000 gallons of diesel, 13,000 gallons of various oils, and 5,000 gallons of coolant and various greases. Also, there was a steel container full of thousands of pounds of explosives. This in itself would have proven disastrous if it were to happen at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed as Salmon are highly sensitive to pollution. Exposure to even miniscule increases in copper in freshwater (ppm), for example, interferes with their sense of smell, impairing their ability to locate spawning grounds and identify predators.
In a story for the periodical Mudflats, Carl Johnson wrote:
The Pebble Mine will have an earthen containment dam that is ten square miles wide at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed that will need to last for eternity. If this is what happens at a mine that is currently operated and that has supposedly an ‘excellent track record’ for safety, (Unlike the Pebble Partnership companies) what will be done to prevent such a thing from happening at Pebble?- which, unlike Bingham is an active earthquake zone.
The landslide itself registered on the seismic record station at Granite Mountain Vault in Salt Lake City. Scientist at the University of Utah seismology center said that if the slide were an earthquake, it would have measured as a 2.4 on the Richter scale. It is the largest non-volcanic slide in modern history that triggered 16 small earthquakes ranging from 4.9 to 5.1.
I would like to mention here since it seems to have been overlooked by the developers of Pebble mine that it will sit on an active seismic fault just north of where the Pacific Plate and North American Plate come into contact. This is a dynamic and constantly changing region and why the Aleutian Chain is there along with a few volcanoes which are the epicenter of many of the earthquakes produced when these two plates slide past one another.
The most powerful earthquake in modern history occurred on Good Friday, March 27, 1964. It registered an 8.6 on the Richter scale and a 9.2 on the Moment Magnitude scale. Within the first week, 9,000 aftershocks occurred. Within the first month, 19 of those were registered a 6.0 or larger.
Even though it‘s epicenter was located in the Prince William Sound area, whole towns and villages throughout South Central Alaska were destroyed by violent tidal waves and had to be moved, including our community of Girdwood.
Alaska comprises only 3 percent of the surface of the planet yet 25 percent of earthquakes originate within its boundaries. Since 1904, Alaska has averaged an earthquake of magnitude 7.2 or more every 2.3 years, most along the Aleutian Chain. Geologically speaking this is a very active area and will continue to be so.
The Pebble Limited Partnership would have us all believe that they will provide more than enough precautions and mitigation measures in the event of an earthquake or “unforeseen event” but it’s interesting to note, that by forming numerous affiliated companies to hold and pursue mining claims and interests in Bristol Bay, investors Anglo-American and Northern Dynasty are trying to conceal the extent of their mining plans from the public and governmental regulatory agencies and to limit their liability if an environmental disaster occurs.
According to Trout Unlimited ” The Pebble mine dam and ten square mile containment pond are intended to hold between 2.5 billion and ten billion tons of mine waste that the mine would produce over its lifetime- nearly enough to bury the city of Seattle. For the same reason, five of the largest dams ever created on earth have been detailed in Northern Dynasty plans to hold – in perpetuity – the 10 billion tons of mine waste that Pebble’s recoverable ore would generate. That equates to 3000 lbs of mine waste for every person alive on the planet today – to be contained forever in a major seismic environment on top of the two major salmon spawning river systems that feed the largest fishery left on earth.
Let’s just pretend for a moment that there will never be another earthquake in Alaska that could compromise the proposed dams. The salmon will still be at risk due to the sulfides in the ore, the rock at the proposed Pebble Mine is considered “reactive” rock, at high risk for acid and metals pollution. Sulfide mining has a near-perfect track record of creating pollution. Despite its protests that it can be done safely, mining companies are unable to point to a sulfide mine that has ever been developed, operated and closed without producing polluted drainage from its operations.
Not only do these mines consistently pollute, but studies show the companies and state agencies reviewing mine plans predict no pollution will occur, when in fact, it always does. Analysis of environmental impact statements for hardrock mines showed that 100 percent of mines predicted compliance with water quality standards before operations began.
When researchers examined the track record of these mines after operations began, they found that 76 percent of them were actually discharging pollutants in excess of water quality standards. In addition, “mitigation measures,” those efforts taken to remedy the discovered pollution problems, failed to do the job 64 percent of the time (source PDF).
On Jan. 15 2014, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a long awaited scientific study of the proposed Pebble mine which concluded that the mine could destroy up to 94 miles of streams where salmon spawn and migrate and up to 5,350 acres of wetlands ponds and lakes. This would have devastating effects for subsistence and commercial fisherman alike. For this reason, Tribes, Native groups and environmental organizations are pushing the EPA to use the Clean Water Act to block the mine even before developers submit their plan to seek permits. Under the Clean Water Act, the agency has the authority to prohibit, limit or restrict the disposal, discharge or long term storage of mining waste into waters within the United States.
John Shively, chief executive of Pebble Limited Partnership, which is developing the mine, views the EPA’s study as a purely “political document,” which ignores the kind of modern engineering and mitigation measures that would have to be instituted to get the necessary permits. According to the Pebble Ltd. Partnership the mine developer says it has spent $150 million on environmental issues alone compared to the $2.4 million the EPA has spent since March of 2013. (The figures have yet to be updated). Yet they come to two very different conclusions, the reason being is most likely due to who’s signing the paychecks.
In the days since the EPA released the study, the political response has been mixed. Although it seems with all the billions of dollars at stake here some are more than willing to take risk usually at the expense of the Land, Creatures and the People that live on it.
In doing the research for this piece I wanted to interview somebody who was in the industry to give a broader view. I contacted one of my old college instructors who is a graduate of the Colorado School of Mines, worked in the industry for over 35 years and has taught for 28 years and is certified both as an OSHA and MSHA Instructor. In addition, his industrial background is in mining and safety, and he is a specialist for underground mine rescue.
Joe wrote me this:
Yes, I’m pro industry and pro mining. I know that Alaskans can use the work and one thing is for sure—when you have a producing mine in your back yard, everybody makes money. There’s a tremendous amount of $$$ that gets thrown into the local economy and tax base. Schools, borough infrastructure, and local merchants and shop owners, along with just about everyone in the area will reap some $$$ benefits. Environmental in all areas where mining is being proposed is of great necessity—and especially where Alaska fisheries, wildlife, and tourism are concerned. Given these delicate issues, it must be of the utmost importance that all tailings impoundments, chemical processes, mining, and reclamation be held to the highest standard possible with frequent inspections and oversight by governing agencies. Great attention must be given to the overall design, process and eventual reclamation. Constant vigilance is a good deterrent against poor design and bad or poor mining practices. Reclamation bonds must be set aside and in large enough sums of money to cover future reclamation regardless of the company’s success or failure in the venture. Companies who do not embrace these ideals and responsibilities from the outset need to get the hell out of mining. It can be done and done well, but given the sensitive environmental, seismic, volcanic, and near coastal issues, it will be a definite challenge to the mining company to “do it and do it well”.