State should dig deeper when inspecting Pebble

See original story published by the Juneau Empire here.

Posted: December 5, 2016 - 12:00am



Contrary to popular belief, the proposed Pebble Mine is not dead. In fact, the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) has spent years quietly hiring high-paid lawyers and lobbyists to lay the ground work in Washington, D.C. to overturn and undo the work of my community and thousands of Alaskans to protect Bristol Bay from this dangerous mine.

While the newspaper headlines and federal comment periods have quieted, members of local communities like Nondalton are living with the ongoing impacts of PLP’s proposal to build a massive mine in our backyard. As the closest community to the proposed project, we are firsthand witnesses to the consequences of PLP’s exploration. The environmental mess they’ve left behind is a constant reminder of the threat the Pebble Mine poses to Bristol Bay communities and their way of life.

Over the past decade, PLP drilled more than 1,300 bore holes into our surrounding lands; some over a mile deep. In the fall of 2015, our tribes joined a large Bristol Bay coalition in petitioning the State of Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to take a closer look at the impacts caused by PLP’s exploration after members of our community noticed problematic conditions on the ground. Unfortunately, we realized the DNR’s monitoring and inspection practices would be insufficient. So, our tribes decided to take this important issue into our own hands and find out what exactly is happening at the Pebble site.

A week before our team visited the Pebble site, DNR spent two days “inspecting” 140 holes. DNR’s review left us without any real information. In only 10 hours of work, the agency “reviewed” many of Pebble’s sites by merely flying over them in a helicopter, while performing additional “visual inspections” at sites chosen by the company. One of the few highlights of the trip was that, for the first time in the decade, DNR conducted a small number of random inspections at sites not preselected by PLP.

In contrast, I accompanied a science team from the Center for Science and Public Participation (CSP2) to the Pebble area the very week after DNR completed its field work. Over the course of five days, our team conducted in-depth water and soil inspections at the site, and what we found was very alarming.

In the independent study released last month, CSP2’s scientists confirmed a myriad of problems at the Pebble site including leaking wells, acidic soils from drill cuttings and the presence of heavy metals in groundwater seeping from the holes, including potentially toxic levels of copper. In addition, we found numerous cases where steel pipe casings, some up to four feet tall, were sticking up from the ground posing a serious safety risk for our local hunters on snow machines and others who travel across this heavily used area during the winter months.

At a minimum, this new study is grounds to call for further investigation by DNR, and highlights the need for the agency to do on-the-ground water and soil inspections, not just helicopter flyovers. DNR’s causal inspections of the Pebble site must be strengthened.

But beyond requesting sufficient oversight, we now know that PLP is not taking its role as a tenant on our public lands seriously, and the state as the landlord is not holding PLP accountable for the mess they have left behind. For example, the state has never required PLP to pay any security deposit to store all this equipment or to pay to clean up the remnants of their exploration. Such financial assurances are commonplace for big projects across the country. No landlord rents an apartment to a tenant without a security deposit up front. PLP should not be any different.

To put it simply, we are concerned about the mess left behind by PLP. The possibility that Alaskans would have to pay to clean it up is adding insult to injury. As DNR’s comment period on Pebble’s Miscellaneous Land Use Permit has ended with record-setting public comments – yet again – opposing Pebble, it’s time for Gov. Bill Walker and DNR to put Alaskans first and require PLP to clean up after itself and not rubberstamp this toxic company’s business in Bristol Bay.

• George Alexie is vice president of the Nondalton Tribal Council and a board member of United Tribes of Bristol Bay.