By Sean Pearson
Some 18 months after Alaskans defeated Ballot Measure 4 — the Clean Water Initiative — the Pebble Limited Partnership continues to butt heads with watchdog groups concerned about the mining corporation’s efforts to build a large gold, copper and molybdenum mine near Illiamna.
Much of the concern is derived from the possible negative impact the mining operation could have on Bristol Bay sockeye salmon.
On Friday, Pebble disclosed it had inadvertently withdrawn water at some drilling sites from sources not specified within Alaska Department of Natural Resources temporary water-use authorizations. The state fined Pebble $45,000 for the illegal water use; $1,000 for each of 45 violations over the past three years.
“This was a matter of us not having the authority to drill in a specific area,” said Mike Heatwole, vice president of public affairs for Pebble. “Field personnel believed they had the appropriate authority to draw water from the areas they were drawing from. There was some confusion between the fish habitat permits and the temporary water-use permits.”
Pebble said it discovered the water-use error in October 2009, and then “took immediate actions to halt drilling operations and move its rigs to
sites with clearly identified and approved water sources.”
“The bottom line is that there was no harm done to the environment because that’s just the way we approach our work,” Heatwole said. “I think the state will agree with that.”
Heatwole explained how the company goes to lengths to protect the environment by using mesh over intake hoses to minimize infiltration and flying human waste out by helicopter.
Cook Inletkeeper Executive Director Bob Shavelson wasn’t as impressed.
“I traveled over to tour the mine site in 2007 and was amazed at the levels of impacts allowed to occur,” Shavelson said. “And this is still just the exploration phase. We could fly over and see the clean, healthy pristine ponds that hadn’t been touched, and then see the cloudy, muddied water in the other ponds that were essentially used as dumping pits. They were silted and clogged up with slurry and other additives like anti-scaling agents.”
According to Anders Gustafson, executive direction of the Renewable Resources Coalition, Pebble has come under scrutiny recently for the use of drilling additives and their toxicity to fish.
“Time after time, the Pebble Partnership and its CEO John Shively have asked Alaskans to ‘give the project a chance,’ to ‘wait and see,’ and to allow the process to proceed. This just shows the process does not protect waters of Alaska. Fines do not undo contamination. We cannot allow the Pebble Partnership to violate Alaskans’ trust.”
Heatwole said he feels Pebble is still looking out for Alaska’s best interest.
“In 2009, we were authorized to remove 32.5 million gallons of water, and we used just over 4 million,” Heatwole said. “It’s frustrating that it happened, but we disclosed the information in a timely manner and sought ways to establish more point accountability. We’re installing GPS units on each of our drill rigs so that we will be certain of locations. It’s important to know that we met all the terms and conditions of the permits.”
Shavelson said he finds the system of self-reporting violations to be something of a standard business practice, now.
“They commit the violation, self-report it, accept the penalty and pay a small fine,” he said. “Then, it’s back to business as usual.”
Shavelson made the point that permitters told Pebble to stay out of certain aquifers for a reason.
“They obviously thought, ‘We don’t think it’s a good idea for you to take water’ from where Pebble got caught taking it,” he said. “We know these surface ponds are crucial to the maintenance and recharging of our salmon runs. And this is still just the permitting phase. Remember those tailings ponds have to be managed forever. That’s a long time.”
The bottom line for Heatwole, however, is that Pebble was “within the approved limits” and did not exceed the number of holes drilled.
“We were given the authority to drill several hundred holes, and we only drilled 33. There’s no question that we are very careful about what we do,” he said. “I think, in all the discussions that have arisen from this, there is not enough focus on the fact that we are meeting the terms and conditions of those permits.”
Still, Shavelson said the entire incident does little to inspire confidence “when one of the largest mining corporations in the world can’t comply with such basic permits.”
“We know, with 100 percent certainty, that all mining operations will have some kind of violation throughout their process,” Shavelson said. “Anytime you factor in human error, you’re going to see violations occur. It’s really up to our decision-makers and policy-makers to decide if this project is really worth the risk.”