Environmental Disaster Grows Closer in Long-Disputed Alaska Mine Project
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Environmental Disaster Grows Closer in Long-Disputed Alaska Mine Project

New Trump-Era Report Says ‘No Problem’ with Pebble Mine Planned for Giant, Pristine Salmon Spawning Region

Sarah Okeson

Sarah Okeson

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, influenced by Donald Trump, hired a firm to look at a proposal for a copper and gold mine in southwest Alaska, home to sockeye salmon. The engineers, known to gloss over disaster potential, reached polar opposite conclusions of the Obama EPA.

The EPA said the mine would result in a “complete loss of fish habitat” in the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.

AECOM, a Los Angeles-based global engineering firm, was chosen after it touted its ability to suppress considering the worst of possible disasters. The firm claims the mine proposal, which has been scaled down  “would not be expected to have a measurable effect” on fish populations in Bristol Bay.

The House of Representatives passed an appropriations package with an amendment that would bar funding to issue a permit for the mine.

The environmental impact statement, or EIS, has been panned widely by environmental organizations. The House of Representatives passed an appropriations package with an amendment that would bar funding to issue a permit for the mine.

“This EIS fails to meet even a low bar for scientific credibility,” said Cameron Wobus, senior scientist, Lynker Technologies.

The company behind the proposed Pebble Mine is Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. of Vancouver, a cash-poor firm whose only significant asset is the mine. Pebble Limited Partnership, the subsidiary that would build the mine, spent almost $1.6 million on federal lobbying in 2019.

Its 25 lobbyists in 2019 included Brian Ballard, the former chairman of Trump’s fundraising committee, and Lamar Smith, the anti-science former congressman from Texas who chaired the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Tom Collier, the CEO of Pebble Limited Partnership, was chief of staff of the Interior Department under Bill Clinton.

ACTION BOX/What You Can Do About It

The proposed Pebble Mine would be in the large red area just above the center of the map.

Tell Maj. Gen. Scott Spellmon of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers your thoughts on mining at our nation’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. Write Spellmon at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 441 G Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20314-1000.

Contact United Tribes of Bristol Bay at 907-842-1687 or [email protected]


A key part of AECOM’s study was a failure modes effects analysis which isn’t recognized in the federal guidelines for dam safety risk management. This type of analysis, which helps identify potential failures, was introduced by the military in the 1940s and adopted by other federal agencies and industry.

This is an aerial photo of the Fort Knox mine near Fairbanks, Alaska. It is similar to the proposed Pebble mine. The open pit is in the foreground; tailings impoundment lagoons in the back. (Ground Truth Trekking)

NASA used this type of analysis to safely put Neil Armstrong on the moon. Ford started using FMEAs after it manufactured the Pinto, a subcompact in which at least 27 people died from fuel tank fires.

Mine projects typically didn’t analyze the probability or the environmental consequences of the failure of a dam containing toxic mine waste. In 2014, a dam failed in Mount Polley, British Columbia, releasing about 24 million cubic meters of a toxic slurry of mine waste and water into a creek and once-pristine glacier lake. In January 2019, a tailings dam collapsed in Bumadinha, Brazil, killing 270 people, including two pregnant women, in one of Brazil’s worst environmental disasters.

Tailings dams have an annual probability of failure that is about 10 times the annual probability of failure of water dams.

AECOM assessed the risks of a tailings release in another proposed gold mine, the Donlin Gold mine, which was approved in August 2018. Government agencies involved in that assessment wanted to look at a more drastic failure, the loss of 20% of the contents, but AECOM successfully pushed back at considering the bigger disaster, something it touted while the company was trying to get the Pebble Mine job.

Sockeye salmon gather to spawn in a stream near the proposed Pebble Mine site. (Jason Ching via Natural Resources Defense Council)

“Basing the failure scenario on work completed by FMEA experts will result in a defensible scenario for the EIS,” the company wrote.

Officials from state and federal agencies involved in looking at the plans for Pebble Mine criticized how AECOM used the analysis.

Kyle Moselle, associate director of the Alaska Office of Project Management and Permitting, wrote that state dam safety officials believed the reliance on the FMEA process wasn’t a thorough assessment of the risk of failure.

“FMEA’s are subjective and prone to significant cognitive bias and other forms of bias and are reportedly unreliable for formal risk assessment,” Moselle wrote.

Featured image: The proposed Pebble open pit would be in the upper center of this photo, in the relatively flat area below the hills. (Center for Science in Public Participation)

August 12, 2020