Report On Spills At Alaska Mines Reinforces Opposition To Pebble Mine

As the push to get permanent protections to the Bristol Bay region from projects such as the Pebble Mine waits on a now delayed Environmental Protection Agency ruling, a recent study from Earthworks increased tension over the possibility of spills and other failures. Last month, Earthworks determined that more than 8,000 spills occurred in Alaska’s five major mining projects in a 25-year span through 2020. Here’s that Earthworks press release:

A groundbreaking analysis is the first to compare predicted versus actual spills of hazardous materials at the five largest mining operations in Alaska, and expose the enormous discrepancy between the two.

The analysis found more than 8,150 total spills associated with these five mines between 1995-2020, or approximately 300 spills each year. These mining operation spills released more than 2.3 million gallons and 1.9 million pounds of hazardous materials during that 26-year span. The analysis, conducted by Dr. Susan Lubetkin on behalf of a diverse coalition of tribal and conservation organizations, finds that mining proponents severely underestimated spill risk when they sought federal/state permits. Dr. Lubetkin examined not only the disturbing evidence of spills but also the inaccurate forecasting for industrial hardrock mining across the state.

In their industrial mining permit applications and environmental reports, companies analyzed the likelihood of spills for only three substances, versus the more than 50 different hazardous materials, including extremely hazardous cyanide and hydrochloric acid, that spilled from mining operations. What’s more, three out of five mining companies focused on truck accidents as potential transportation-related spills and only one of those also included risk assessments for slurry pipeline spills. All five companies failed to forecast risks from other causes, such as equipment failure or human error, or even total anticipated spills. In reality, truck accidents represented a mere 114 or 1.4% of the spill incidents from all causes at the five mines. Alternatively, there were 3,314 or 40% of the total spills were the result of equipment failures.

“The spills analysis conducted during the environmental review process for all five mines grossly underestimated the number of actual spills,” said Dr. Susan Lubetkin, author of the report.  “None of the environmental review documents for these five mines predicted the number of possible spills for anything other than transportation-related spills, and even those were severely underestimated. It is impossible to get an accurate assessment of spill risks without considering all the hazardous substances and the many different causes of accidental releases. My hope is that I can inspire the state of Alaska and others to increase their demands for scientific rigor by pointing out one area where previous permitting documents have been lacking and their predicted impacts have been wrong.”

“Tanana Chiefs Conference joined this analysis because we were curious on how well the permitting process forecasted spills and other unintended consequences at mines operating today. The results are astonishing,” said Amber Vaska, Executive Director of Tribal Government and Client Services for Tanana Chiefs Conference (TCC). “The higher than predicted spill rates are especially concerning, as they demonstrate that the evaluations do not accurately account for environmental impacts. This further emphasizes the need for all evaluations on the Ambler Road to include the potential impacts of mining and spills so that we have an accurate report on how the project will disturb our pristine lands and to what extent.” 

“This report shows that state and federal agencies are under-estimating the threat that mining poses to our communities,” said Doug Katchatag, President of the Norton Bay Inter-Tribal Watershed Council. “Rivers, streams and ocean waters are the primary food source for most of the people in Arctic communities. State and federal officials need to take the results of this report seriously and incorporate the recommendations into mining reviews.” 

The report also includes recommendations for future analyses and permitting processes, including requiring an assessment of onsite and transportation-related spill risks. It also urges the state of Alaska to update and add to their existing spill database and track the consequences of mining spills on an individual and comprehensive basis. While this analysis  focused on the five largest mines in Alaska, there are approximately 160 different mining entities in the state.  

“The report makes shockingly clear that the federal government has failed for decades to provide the true picture of mining impacts to Alaska,” said Alex Johnson, Alaska Senior Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “As we fight against the rushed effort to push through the Ambler mining road and other ill-advised mine proposals in globally significant national park landscapes in Alaska, these new findings underscore the need for data-informed decision-making, with people, land, and water, not profits, at the forefront.”

“Hardrock mining is the leading source of toxic pollution in the nation,” said Bonnie Gestring, Northwest Program Director at Earthworks. “It’s crucial that state and federal agencies fix this flaw in the environmental review process, and use the most accurate information possible to inform rural communities of the risks to their health and homelands from mining operations and haul roads.”