Sunday, January 04, 2009

Pebble Mine In Southwest Alaska A Tougher Sell After Ruptured Dam Inundates The Kingston, Tennessee Area With 1.1 Billion Gallons Of Coal Ash Sludge

The proposed Pebble Mine in Southwest Alaska, already a tough sell to many Alaskans with the strongest opposition centered around the Bristol Bay area, may have become a tougher sell after the December 22nd, 2008 disaster just upstream of the confluence of the Tennessee and the Clinch Rivers near Kingston, Tennessee when a 65-foot TVA-owned earthen dam containing coal ash sludge ruptured and inundated 300 acres of the adjacent countryside with an estimated 1.1 billion gallons (or 5.4 million cubic yards) of the pudding-like goo. The sludge wall swamped residential lakefront property, swallowed farmland and killed fish. It's estimated to be 40 times bigger in volume than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Visit the UnitedMountainDefense website and the DirtyCoalTVA blog for more information and pictures.

As a matter of fact, if the TVA doesn't move out smartly to clean up the mess, compensate the 42 affected families who owned property in the area, and restore the area, the disaster could be used as justification to kill the Pebble Mine project altogether.

While a specific cause of the dam's collapse has yet to be pinpointed, it's been noted that 8.83 inches of rain fell in the area during the preceding three weeks, which may have weakened the earthen berm retaining walls of the landfill sufficiently to cause them to give way, allowing five decades of fly and bottom ash to ooze over the river and land below. A TVA official stated that the dam had been inspected yearly, most recently in October.

At least three homes were completely destroyed and dozens more damaged. Officials have now declared that local tap water is considered safe because the treatment process removes the chemicals, but locals have been advised against consuming well water because of the possibility of groundwater contamination. Some heavy metal concentrations near the epicenter of the spill were found to be 300 times higher than regulatory levels.

So what about the Pebble Mine? According to the Pebble Partnership, the proposed development plan for the Pebble Project, to be submitted in 2009, will be subject to a regulatory review involving 11 state and federal agencies and the citizens of Alaska. The Pebble Partnership must also provide information for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and achieve more than 60 state and federal permits. The combined review and permitting process could take three years or more to complete. The Partnership's Pre-Permitting Reports on meteorology, hydrology, and geology of the area can be found HERE.

The Renewable Resources Coalition, which opposes the Pebble Mine and which was one of the groups behind the failed Ballot Measure 4 during the summer of 2006, points out that the proposed Pebble Mine, which would be the first of many, would include the largest dam in the world, larger than Three Gorges Dam in China, and made of earth, not concrete, to hold back the toxic waste created in the mining process. Pages 8 and 9 of these DNR documents show the proposed tailings pond and the associated earthen dam. It will be considerably higher than a mere 65 feet. It looks like around 700 feet, to be precise.

But will a 700-foot high earthen retaining wall be strong enough to contain such a large tailings pond? We have an additional problem not shared by Tennessee; Alaska is geologically active. That means earthquakes. The TVA spill has already produced a fish kill; a similar breach of the Pebble tailings pond would produce another fish kill. But a Pebble fish kill would jeopardize salmon in their spawning area, adversely affecting one of the three largest industries in Alaska - commercial fishing. In 2008, the total value paid to all harvesters of all types of fish in Alaska was around $1.4 billion.

The Pebble Partnership needs to factor in the TVA spill and inform the Alaskan public how they plan to minimize the possibility of a similar breach in Alaska. They should not interpret the vote against Ballot Measure 4 last summer as a vote for the Pebble Mine. Most people voted against Ballot Measure 4 because they believed it would shut down existing mining in Alaska, although the language tended to grandfather existing operations. But had the TVA spill occurred before the August election, it's quite possible that Ballot Measure 4 would have passed.

Other areas of the U.S. are vulnerable to these problems. A Kennecott tailings pond near Magna, Utah, is considered a threat to rupture in the event of a 7.5 or greater earthquake, inundating several adjacent neighborhoods. The Wasatch Front is considered long overdue for a serious quake. And Leadville, Colorado remains in danger of a possible toxic gusher from a mine drainage tunnel. Alaska is open for business for the mining industry, but not at the price of our fishing industry, and not at the risk of permanent destruction of our environment.

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