Some decades ago, WC was backpacking in the Oregon Cascade mountains, traipsing downhill through heavy rain, when WC carelessly stepped on the back of a rattlesnake. The force of WC’s heel, and the weight of his backpack, broke the snake’s back about six inches behind its head. Leaving the snake thrashing on the trail, biting at leaves, sticks and stones. WC would have liked to have put the thing out of its misery, but even a mortally injured rattlesnake is dangerous.
Pebble Mine – the terrifying proposal to create the world’s largest, open pit mine in the headwaters of the world’s most productive salmon spawning grounds – is pretty much a dead issue. Public opinion and federal regulation finally recognized that a mine that might produce 55 billion tons of copper and 67 million ounces of gold from an ore body that is only, at best, 0.78% valuable minerals is going to produce mine waste of some 705 billion tons. That doesn’t count overburden, or non-mineral bearing rock removed to get at the low grade ore. Mine waste is laced with heavy metals, acids and poisons.The EPA reports that mining waste has contaminated portions of the headwaters of over 40 percent of watersheds in the western continental U.S., and reclamation of 500,000 abandoned mines in 32 states could cost tens of billions of dollars. At Pebble, this unimaginably vast amount of dangerous gunk would have to be stored safely forever. Many folks – including the EPA and WC – don’t think it can be done.
On the other side of the equation is the world’s most valuable fishery. The mine, in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, would carry the potential of damaging or destroying the world’s largest remaining wild salmon fishery. That immense pile of mine waste would be a threat forever. And the world is full of instances of supposedly safe mine waste storage facilities that have failed, sometimes catastrophically.
As public realization of the risks of Pebble cut through the fog of disinformation from Pebble, the partners in Pebble Group, the mine’s promoter, withdrew. Anglo American, a 50% partner, walked away from its investment in 2013. Rio Tinto, a major investor in Northern Dynasty, the other Pebble partner, withdrew in 2014. Now “Pebble Partnership” is just Northern Dynasty. It lacks the financial resources to proceed. Public opinion has shifted against the mine. Northern Dynasty has lost a string of important legal cases.
But like that rattlesnake, Northern Dynasty is thrashing around, striking at what it thinks may be its enemies. Northern Dynasty is suing the Environmental Protection Agency. As far as WC can tell, Northern Dynasty accuses the EPA of unfairly listening to someone besides Northern Dynasty in performing EPA’s duties. Even in the unlikely event that EPA were to lose that lawsuit, it’s not going to solve the problem of gigatons of mine waste is a priceless fishery. It’s not gong to change the hydrology of Bristol Bay. As a strategic tactic, it’s stupid. As a use of shareholder dollars, its pointless. It’s the behavior of an mortally injured rattlesnake.
Northern Dynasty is trying to compel the testimony of people in the environmental community. Pebble thinks they are its “enemies.” There’s no financial upside for Pebble, no return on the fearsome investment in lawyers. At the very best, it’s petty revenge, schoolyard bully tactics.
And from an industry perspective, Northern Dynasty is making it that much harder for the industry to work in Alaska. Northern Dynasty is poisoning the well, generating vast amounts of ill-will that linger in Alaska long after Northern Dynasty is down. But that’s what an injured snake does. It strikes mindlessly at friend and foe alike.
The snake has an excuse; it has a brain the size of half a peanut. What’s Northern Dynasty’s excuse?