The report by the peer review group brought together to review the EPA report on Bristol Bay and the potential impacts thereon from the Pebble Mine (or other mines that may be developed in the area) is out.
Its full title is Final Peer Review Report. External Peer Review of EPA’s Draft Document. An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska
It is easy enough to download from the web. It runs to nearly 200 pages, so put aside time to read it all.
I repeat below most of the recommendations from the Executive Summary. But before you read these peer review comments, a few comments of my own.
Correctly, I believe, the peer reviewers called on the EPA to provide more detail on how any mine in that part of the world will be looked after perpetually. The reports states: “perpetual management of the geotechnical integrity of the waste rock and tailings storage facilities, as well as perpetual water treatment and monitoring, most likely will be necessary. Therefore, emphasize how monitoring and management of the geotechnical integrity of waste rocks and tailing storage facilities should continue ‘In Perpetuity.’ ”
Now that is an impossible mandate and the peer reviewers should know that and should have acknowledge it. They failed to do so, because they know this could be a nail in the coffin.
We tried to answer this very question thirty years ago on the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project. We had a Federal law telling us to provide closure works that would last for 1,000 years, to the extent reasonably achievable, and at any rate for 200 years. Nevertheless, we and many others at that time asked how we could close the piles to be stable in perpetuity without active surveillance and maintenance. (A great deal was written on this question if you care to seek it out.)
We ran into the fact that companies do not stick around for 1,000 net alone 10,000 years. Even governments tend not to last that long. We recognized that the Roman Catholic Church is about the only institution to have lasted more than 2,000 years. So the joker in the pack suggested founding a new church to look after the piles–give them hereditary succession was the crux of the matter. Somebody even suggested handing the piles over to the Roman Catholic Church with a large endowment.
Of course what was done is that a DOE office was set up in Grand Junction, Colorado with a mandate to undertake long-term surveillance and maintenance of both the 24 government piles and the 24 piles created by the private sector uranium mining industry. I am not sure of the details of its right to continue and get assured funding. But you and the EPA can find that out pretty fast.
The point is that all mines will become the wards and responsibility of the government of the day in the long term. The fact is that the taxpayers will pay, in the long term, to look after the things and deal with the consequences of inevitable malfunction and failure.
Which means, I believe, that society (i.e., the taxpayer) has the right to decide if the present benefits of a new mine will offset the long-term costs of perpetual surveillance and maintenance. Thus it should be in the case of the Pebble Mine. Thus the British Columbia government decided a month or two back when they said no to a proposed new mine above a lake where salmon spawn–see this link on the Morrison Mine rejection. And thus too Malcomb Scoble, Professor of Mining Engineering at the University of British Columbia decided re Kemess Mine. Maybe it is time to call in the senior professors and shunt aside the juniors?
The second major point, in my opinion, made by the peer reviewers is to call for a discussion of the use of best management practices for mining, not just ordinary old practice.
Now best management practice is a rather nebulous term. It is used frequently in surface water management, and it is continually changing. It really means doing what seems necessary at the time, if you can get away with that. There is no body of learning or practice in mining of best management practices.
Some profound experts will tell you that best management practice includes peer review. Nordie Morgenstern somewhere wrote or said that peer review by himself and a number of others is the reason there has never been a significant failure of any of the oil sands tailings facilities (I think I heard him say that in a keynote address a few years back–but best check it out with him first.)
Then some will tell you best practice involves designing for the maximum earthquake and the greatest precipitation. But those who preach this course, quickly retreat by calling for judicious use of risk assessments to avoid doing the hard and expensive things.
Mike Davis, formerly of AMEC now of Teck, once wrote that tailings failures peak some years after hard economic times in the mining industry. His reasoning is that in hard times, the mining companies cut back staff and reduce oversight. Thus again the question, how do you make sure that Anglo as it goes through hard times will not cut back on the engineers and technicians and peer reviewers who are supposed to be there to ensure implementation of best practice. The answer is that you cannot.
Enough of my comments. It is Saturday evening. I am off to drink and watch opera. So here are some of the EPA peer reviewers comments. Enjoy, but be wary, they hide a world of ignorance, sins, evasion, and political correctness.
Expand the discussion on the use of “best” management practices, because only “best” practice likely would be appropriate for a mine developed in the Bristol Bay watershed; anything less may not be permitted. Even so, without a track record of “best” practice (e.g., new technologies), we cannot assume that technology, by itself, without appropriate operational management controls, can always mitigate risk.
Clarify the geographic scope and coverage of the assessment (the entire Bristol Bay watershed or the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers’ watersheds). Assess all rivers and streams that will be potentially influenced by the proposed mine (and its ancillary facilities, wastewater and solid waste management, and the transportation corridor), for they provide critical habitat for salmon production.
The hypothetical mine scenario is the foundation for the assessment and reviewers recommend that EPA provide additional rationale for the scenarios assessed. Consider adopting a broader range of mine scenarios, especially smaller mine sizes, than the ones presented in the report.
Incorporate mitigation measures (e.g., minimization, compensation, reclamation) from Appendix I into the document’s mine scenarios discussion as they influence the range of mining impacts. Expand the discussion on the use of “best” management practices, because only “best” practice likely would be appropriate for a mine developed in the Bristol Bay watershed; anything less may not be permitted. Even so, without a track record of “best” practice (e.g., new technologies), we cannot assume that technology, by itself, without appropriate operational management controls, can always mitigate risk.
Based on the hypothetical mine scenario, perpetual management of the geotechnical integrity of the waste rock and tailings storage facilities, as well as perpetual water treatment and monitoring, most likely will be necessary. Therefore, emphasize how monitoring and management of the geotechnical integrity of waste rocks and tailing storage facilities should continue “In Perpetuity.”
Explain why the assessment’s scope for wildlife and humans was limited to fish-mediated impacts. Reviewing effects beyond fish-mediated ones could improve the assessment because the potential direct and indirect impacts for human cultures extend far beyond fish-mediated impacts. Similarly, explain why fish-mediated effects on humans were limited to Alaska Native cultures.
Strengthen the assessment with additional information to characterize the interconnectedness of groundwater and surface water and its importance to fish habitat in the watersheds. This discussion should consider seasonality (e.g., wet vs. dry summers or years) and how global climate change could influence hydrologic processes over the long term, which could pose challenges in distinguishing between impacts of climate change and mining impacts on the hydrology and salmonid ecosystem.
The assessment focuses on risks to sockeye salmon in the Bristol Bay watershed (and also considers anadromous salmonids, rainbow trout, and Dolly Varden), but does not account for potential impacts to other members of the resident fish community.
Further, primary and secondary production, including nutrient flux, was not addressed. Expanding the assessment to consider other levels of organization, including direct as well as indirect effects on wildlife and other resident fishes, would provide additional context to this assessment of mine-related impacts.
Explain how contaminants/metals of concern were selected. Include additional metals and their toxicities, as well as anticipated contaminant mixtures, in potential leachates. The Pebble Limited Partnership baseline document presented additional metals that might be useful to include in this assessment.
Provide consistent levels of detail for the different scenarios and stressors. For example, the document devotes 36 pages to catastrophic tailings storage facility failure, while sections on potential risks from pipeline, water treatment, and road/culvert failures are brief. The risks associated with potential spills from “day-today” operations deserve more attention in the assessment.