hearts and minds

October 8, 2006

A Clear and Present Danger to the Alaska Peninsula

Filed under: Alaska,Metal sulfide mining — Hearts & Minds @ 12:23 pm

There’s an awful looming threat of a huge Metallic Sulfide Mining District proposed in the grand, wild, and immensely productive Alaska Peninsula. We can afford no delay in alerting people to the environmental dangers posed by SULFIDES, in the proposed Pebble mining project. Just the opening phase of the Pebble proposal would entail a sulfuric acid generating tailings pond the size of Manhattan Island, impounded by an earthen dam larger than the Three Gorges Dam being built in China.

I comment here about
(I.) sulfide mining chemistry,
(II.) the Wisconsin Metallic Sulfide Mining Moratorium, and
(III.) genetic engineering in sulfide mining.

I hope these brief notes contribute positively to community awareness.

I. Metallic Sulfide Mining Chemistry

Modern metallic sulfide mining technology involves removing and finely crushing solid rock and using chemical reactions and other processes to extract the desired metal. Remove the stuff you want. Leave the rest behind. Other than making a big hole in the ground, and a mess where the mine is located, what can be wrong with that? Turns out, what’s wrong is not just the hole in the ground, or how bad it looks. But the problem and the harm IS pretty simple to understand. It has to do with what the rock is made out of, and what happens to the rock when it is processed.

A rock that you can hold in one hand has an exposed surface area that is about 30 square inches. You throw that rock in a bucket of water or a lake, not much happens. That solid rock will dissolve in water very, very slowly, and normal chemical reactions involving the rock will proceed very, very slowly.

But if that same rock you held in your hand is pulverized to a fine powder, the exposed surface area becomes measured in acres, not square inches. And chemical reactions involving minerals in that rock will now proceed very quickly.

When sulfide bearing ores are locked up as solid rock under ground, the sulfide weathers very slowly, if at all, and poses no danger.

When the ore body is mined, however, large quantities of sulfide bearing rock are crushed and even pulverized. That’s how the ore processor gets the metals they want out of the rock. But there’s other stuff in the rock. And that stuff is left behind.

Now here’s the bad news. When crushed SULFIDE rock is exposed to oxygen (air) and H2O (water), the automatic, inevitable chemical reaction produces sulfuric acid. Massive quantities of sulfuric acid. (Sulfuric acid is the same stuff used in vehicle starting batteries.)

The amount of acid produced depends on how much sulfide is there, and whether it is exposed to air and water. It doesn’t depend on the percentage of sulfide. It depends on the total quantity of sulfide in the exposed, crushed rock.

As you can imagine, the sulfuric acid itself presents immediate toxic dangers to the watershed and all life that lives in and depends on it. And it also dissolves toxic heavy metals, which present their own dangers. (Salmon, for example, are harmed and killed by much lower concentrations of copper than would harm most other animals.)

There are also large quantities of other dangerous toxins shipped in and employed in sulfide ore mining and processing (such as sodium cyanide) and they add more big problems, in transport, in use, and in being left behind.

One last point. It appears to me that not only is the ore body of the Pebble deposit a sulfide ore, but the host rock surrounding it, is also sulfide bearing. If the host rock happened to be alkaline (the opposite of acid), the mining industry would likely claim that could somehow neutralize the acid generated by the crushed sulfide ore. If the host rock is neutral, disturbance of the host rock itself would not cause acid generation, but it can not be claimed to neutralize the acid generated by the sulfide ore body waste rock, either. The worst case is when both the ore body and the host rock surrounding the ore are sulfide bearing. That is because disturbance and exposure of the host rock (to get at the ore body) will also result in sulfuric acid generation.

That’s the bio-chemical basic dangers of metallic sulfide mining, in a nutshell. Whenever anyone says “Pebble”, or mentions large-scale mining on the Alaska Peninsula, make sure you say “SULFIDE mining” and “inevitable sulfuric acid generation”.

II. Wisconsin Metallic Sulfide Mining Moratorium Law

The Law was the culmination of a hard fought struggle between the grass-roots coalition (of Native-Americans, local residents, sports hunters and fishermen’s organizations, local and national environmental groups, labor unions, scientists and engineers, and tourist and outdoor sports related business) on the one hand, and the multi-national mining corporation lobbyists, on the other hand. (The commercial fishing industry is much reduced from what it once was here, and subsistence use is also nothing like what it once was. Due to widespread habitat destruction, neither is likely to return to prominence. And subsistence and commercial fishing was not a significant factor in the coalition to stop metal sulfide mining in northern Wisconsin.)

The effort to pass this Law was inspired by a local school teacher who realized, from her research, that there had NEVER been a mine in a metallic sulfide ore body that had NOT resulted in severe toxic pollution. And so the coalition began to press for a bill that would prohibit ANY mine proposed for a metallic sulfide ore body from being permitted in Wisconsin unless the industry could show ONE suitable example of such a mine that had been operated for at least ten years, AND closed for ten years, that had not caused toxic pollution harmful to the watershed and the environment.

The industry lobbyists had lots of power, and lots of connections, and lots of chump change to spread around. Although they were unable to prevent the Metallic Sulfide Mining Moratorium from becoming law, they were able to twist and subvert some of the language. One thing they did was change the original intent described in the paragraph above by changing a word at the last minute on the floor of the legislature. That little wording change had the effect of letting the industry use two DIFFERENT mines as examples for the requirement that a mine had to have operated for at least ten years and been closed for at least ten years to qualify for review. The industry lobbyists snuck that little wording change into the proposed bill at the last minute because they knew a law of some kind was going to be signed, and they knew that there was NO METAL SULFIDE MINE IN THE WORLD that could meet that criterion of operating for at least ten years, and being closed for ten years without polluting.

So, you see, the two separate conditions in Wisconsin’s Moratorium Law were actually the result of last minute dirty tricks the industry lawyer/lobbyists pulled to help them make a loophole for themselves. (Despite this, they could not even come up, later, with suitable examples that would fit through their own contrived loophole.)

The most important benefit of the metal sulfide mining moratorium struggle was how useful it was in educating so many Wisconsinites, in a relatively short time, of the specific, easily understood dangers of metallic sulfide mining.

It is also important to focus public attention on the loopholes in law and regulations that allow “Bad Actors” to apply for and even receive permits, and allow important non-reversible groundwater and surface water and air quality and habitat damage to occur.

III. 21st Century Gold Bugs

I hope you find this useful. I also have an essay, titled The 21st Century Bite of the Gold Bug, which you might find interesting and ominous. The future of high tech metallic sulfide mining may already be here, and indications are that it may include on-site use of genetically modified bacteria to cut processing costs, and increase profits. Those bacteria are strains which, by nature, process the sulfide ore and help separate the desired minerals at lower cost than other methods, and are genetically modified so they can survive in temperatures well above boiling water, and in conditions that would normally be highly toxic to life. These G.E. bacteria would typically be used in industrial quantities at the processing site.

I have no information on whether that processing method might even be considered for the Proposed Pebble Mining District. It’s good to be aware and prepared for possible twists and turns in the proposals presented, and strategies and tactics used in the regulatory and legislative processes.

The article is easily accessed by clicking on “Metal sulfide mining” under the “Environment” category when you link to my “HEARTS AND MINDS” blog. . Or you can just click on the hyperlink at the head of this Article III.

IV. References:

There are a couple, three interesting and very useful reference books I’d like to recommend for local libraries and concerned residents and organizations.

Important and inspiring leadership of the movement against metal sulfide mining in Wisconsin was provided by Al Gedicks, who wrote “New Resource Wars” and his latest, “Resource Rebels”, published in 2001. They are available from http://www.southendpress.org .

A book by the “Father” of the Wisconsin Metallic Sulfide Mining Moratorium will be released very soon. Roscoe Churchill with Laura Furtman have written “The Buzzards Have Landed” in memory of Roscoe’s late wife Evelyn, who did much of the careful research documented in the book, and used in the actual struggle. If you don’t want to re-invent the gill net, and you’d rather not go off half-cocked to meet the well-prepared mining lobbyists and PR talkers, you’d do well to have this important reference on the real story of the Flambeau Mine. Published by Goblin Fern Press. 6401 Odana Road, Suite B. Madison, Wisconsin, 53719.

October, 2006


  1. Pebble Mine is probably the biggest threat we are facing right now as this would be the biggest open pit mine in North America. Furthermore, it is situated in the headwaters of one of our richest fisheries, if not the richest. And let’s face it, a mine this big is not likely not to pollute. The opposition is growing. Right now there are several prominent groups fighting this: Alaskans for Responsible Mining, Renewable Resources Coalition http://www.renewableresourcescoalition.org , Cook Inlet Alliance based in Homer, and the Bristol Bay Alliance. Other environmental groups are fighting it as well. I hope they find the opposition so strong that they decide not to go forward with the mine. Problem is, unfortunately, the Governor and the current Legislature is extremely development oriented and are bending over backwards to change the regulations to make it as easy as possible for mining. Anyway, it will be a sad day for this renewable resource if the mine goes through.

    Comment by Nina — February 16, 2007 @ 6:12 pm | Reply

  2. Over a year later this post is still important and the issue is hot in Alaska in amongst various trials of our corrupt legislators. However at this time Bristol Bay Alliance has faded, Renewable Resources Coalition (www.renewableresourcescoalition.org), Trout Unlimited, are the most prominent groups in the fray. Cook Inlet Keepers, and Alaskans for Responsible Mining are also involved.

    In the pro-mine corner Anglo American has signed on to the tune of $1.4+ BILLION dollars and the promine campaign is working hard. They have conned some Native Groups to sue in favor of mine issues – a group that used to avoid regional Native issues. They are doing their best to buy as much good will as possible and are making a lot of promises that no harm will be done.

    The Renewable Resources Coalition is leading efforts to get some more stringent water laws on the books through the initiative process. In Alaska this is a real up hill struggle and we need 23,000+ signatures of registered voters from all corners of the state.

    On the good side, the 9th circuit court upheld the Clean Water Act with regard to a mine development near Juneau. A mine near Nome had to be delayed a while when the Corps of Engineers was forced to back up and follow proper environmental review proceedure.

    The exposure of the rampant bribing and corruption of our legislature has resulted in more restrictions on lobbyists, better limits on gift acceptance and extracurricular activities of the legislators, and conviction and resignation of some of the most corrupt legislators. Investigations are on-going on some members and may ensnare our Senator Stevens in DC! This should make it more difficult for other big industries to have undue influence at the legislative level.

    So please, the anti mine efforts of Alaska really need factual and financial support of folks from the rest of the US.

    Comment by Dan D — November 27, 2007 @ 2:41 pm | Reply

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