Corporate Greed VS Nome, Alaska Residents?
This story by Diana Haecker in the July 27th, 2006 edition of the Nome Nugget has been edited for length and content.
The 2005 Nome census lists 3,590 residents, 58.7 % of which are Inupiat natives.
NOMEITES QUESTION ROCK CREEK MINE PROPOSAL
By Diana Haecker
Nome Nugget - www.nomenugget.net
The public comment period for the first wave of permits for Alaska Gold Company's Rock Creek mine and mill project may be over, but an increasing number of Nome residents have started questioning the effects the mine will have on the community.
Alaska Gold Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Canadian firm NovaGold, proposes to operate the first open pit hard rock mine on the Seward Peninsula. Unlike placer operations, open pit hard rock mines that use cyanide-leaching processes to extract gold from ore, are large-scale mines characterized by large amounts of waste rock and tailings.
The Rock Creek mine and mill will also mark NovaGold's first project as a gold production company. In the past, NovaGold described itself as an exploration company, and therefore has no real track record or production history. However, most senior management positions at NovaGold are filled with managers that were formerly employed at Placer Dome, Inc. or other big international mining companies.
Nome Before, During And After The Pit
While Nome is literally based on a history of mining, an open pit hard rock mine marks a new era of mining for gold in the area. AGC's proposal calls for mining activities in both the Rock Creek area and Big Hurrah. According to a recent ad in the Anchorage Daily News for a senior mining engineer, the company seeks to move 24,000 to 30,000 tons of material a day.
Proposed are a mill complex, a tailings storage facility, development rock dump and an open pit measuring 3,000 feet by 1,200 feet by 400 feet at Rock Creek. The tailings storage, where both untreated and cyanide treated ore will be stored, is described as stacking up as high as 322 feet. Project descriptions say that 9.9 million tons of tailings will be produced over the projected four to five year life of the mine.
A chemical called cyanide allows hard rock mining companies to go where placer miners could not go to make a profit. According to John Woods, Ph.D., organic chemistry professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, cyanide is the most effective way to extract gold from low-grade ore and still turn a profit.
"Cyanide is by far the most effective way," said Wood. He also explained that while the proposed sodium cyanide is not as worrisome as other cyanide complexes, it is transported as a white powdery substance, and if an accident were to cause the substance to spill and to mix with water, it could have disastrous results. "Once it goes into solution with acidic water," Woods said, "it becomes highly toxic. The exposure ceiling is 4.7 parts per million, which equals about 47 drops in 256 gallons of water."
The cyanidation process allows for large-scale mining, which in turn produces enormous amounts of waste in form of contaminated tailings.
EPA Report - Risks And Disasters
A report by the Environmental Protection Agency titled "Risks posed by Bevill wastes," published in 1997 says, "The Agency continues to believe that mining wastes pose a broad range of environmental risks."
The EPA voiced concern about environmental contamination from cyanide as early as 1985 and from acid rock drainage. "The Agency remains concerned that mines are not routinely required to test waste rock and tailings for acid rock drainage throughout the life of a mine. Once acid rock drainage begins, the chemical phenomena continues for extremely long periods of time," says the report.
The report acknowledges that technologies to mine ore have changed significantly, especially with the use of cyanide vat and heap leaching techniques.
In the past, the EPA had to take emergency action at 72 mine sites in the USA. "The Agency is concerned about the rising cleanup costs from mines and mineral processing sites. The EPA estimates the costs of remediation for mines and mineral processing sites proposed and on the national priorities list to exceed $20 billion."
The EPA paper lists the following disasters in the USA: The Summitville (Montana) gold mine leaked a cyanide solution into the environment and contaminated the Alamosa River and as much as 10 feet of topsoil per year. Cost of cleanup: $150 million.
The Brewer gold mine in South Carolina experienced a major cyanide spill in 1987 when 10 to 12 million gallons of cyanide solution flowed into a nearby river. The spill occurred as a result of a hurricane rainfall.
Bald Mountain mine released 8,000 gallons of cyanide solution in 1993 and 1994.
The Barrick Goldstrike mine released 2,200 gallons of cyanide solutions in 1996, according to the EPA paper.
"The environmental contamination found at Summitville site clearly shows how a relatively small gold cyanide mine can cause long term environmental damage," says the paper.
Relevant to Nome, the EPA said in the report, "Gold mines are being proposed in settings where cyanide mining has never occurred, and there may not be adequate experience to adequately control such issues as snow melt, freeze thaw cycles, and avalanche and seismic threats." According to the National Weather Service, the normal annual snowfall for Nome is 65 inches and the normal annual rainfall is 16.56 inches.
The EPA reports concludes, "The environmental risks associated with these technologies are not well understood by the Agency, and regulatory changes may be warranted."
Geophysicist Cites Dangers
Dave Chambers, geophysicist and founder of the Center for Science in Public Participation, underlined this issue by saying that he was not aware of a single open pit mine utilizing cyanide extraction methods in his home state of Montana that did not pose an environmental problem. Chambers pointed out that disasters such as the one at Summitville and at the Zortman-Landusky mines prompted Montana voters to ban the use of cyanide in open pit mining in their state in 1998.
Through March 2004, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality has spent approximately $37,281,163 to reclaim the Zortman and Landusky Mines, including $33,666,658 in bond settlement funds, $2,017,905 in federal dollars and $1,596,600 in state funds.
Chambers added that Nevada, the biggest gold producing state in the union, does not have the same problems as wet states such as Montana or Alaska. "Cyanide breaks down rather fast under sunlight and a non-acidic water. Nevada has a dry climate and therefor acid drainage and cyanide leaks are not really a concern," Chambers explained.
The long-term effects of cyanide mining techniques and the associated hard rock mining tailings and wastes are not known. AGC's plans include lining the tailing storage facility — the place where 9.9 million tons of waste and tailings will be stacked up to form a 322-foot mountain of waste — with a 1.5 millimeter (1/16 inch) thick high-density polyethylene geomembrane. According to AGC evaluations, there is only a very small likelihood of acid rock drainage at Rock Creek, and "seepage collection drains will be installed above the bedrock surface, along the downstream toe of each embankment stage, to collect and transfer potential seepage to the seepage collection sump."
Chambers pointed out that those liners haven't been around long enough to give an estimate of their lifespan. "Nobody knows for sure how long those liners last," Chambers told The Nome Nugget.
Needed: The Other Side Of the Story
As Nomeites inform themselves, and the Rock Creek project increasingly becomes a topic for conversation, AGC reprimanded a Nome business for not agreeing with the plans as presented. Jim Rowe, Nome businessman and owner of Bering Air, the largest privately owned company in Nome, experienced a backlash after questioning AGC's plans. According to Rowe, the Rock Creek project manager cut business ties with Bering Air, stating that Bering Air owners are not fond of AGC's plans.
At press time, ACG Rock Creek manager Warren Woods had not responded to phone calls from The Nome Nugget.
Rowe said that he doesn't want to focus on this business decision of AGC, but that he wants to direct the attention of residents to real issue, which is the proposed mine and its long-term effects on the community of Nome. "I'm not interested on focusing on their decision to close the Bering Air account. Let's just stick to the subject of the mine and how it will affect us here in Nome," Rowe said.
Rowe and other concerned citizens are in the process of forming a citizen group aimed at providing more information to Nome residents. "It's about Nome before, during and after the pit," said Rowe. "Basically, we're not an anti-mining organization, but we feel there is a side of the story that has not been told. When it comes to open pit mining, we need to realize that the upside to it is almost non-existent and the downside is devastating to the lifestyle of Nome residents. We're just trying to form a group to inform the residents what we're getting into."
A lot of potential effects of the mining operation are speculative at this point, and a recent local emergency planning commission meeting left speculative the planning for transport of hazardous material through Nome.
"We recognize that this body has not given any consideration to chemicals that may be used at the Rock Creek mine," said City Manager Randy Romenesko. When asked what would trigger the issue of 500 tons of sodium cyanide and other chemicals being trucked through Nome, Romenesko said that once permits are issued and the project goes forward, plans should be made to address the issue.
Lisa Christie, Nome's emergency services administrator, added that AGC will meet with emergency responders of Nome to train them for the eventuality of an emergency at the mine site.
Tom Vaden said that in the event of a "situation," the incident command center would be activated and would call the appropriate agencies to handle a spill or other disaster.
John Wood, professor of organic chemistry at IUP who advises nationwide Civil Support Teams and fulltime members of the National Guard or Air Force specializing in hazmat responses, said, "It's ridiculous not to have a plan in place. The City of Nome would be well advised to formulate an ordinance regulating the transport of certain chemicals — especially toxic industrial chemicals such as cyanide — through their town to the mill site."
Letters, comments and form faxes
Tom Crafford, Department of Natural Resources Rock Creek project manager and a member of the DNR's and DEC's large mine team, said the team is still working on responses to the comment period on the first wave of permits. "I expect we'll be done by the end of this week, and I anticipate making a permitting decision by the end of next week."
Thirteen letters in support of the mine came from the Wales Native Corporation, the Brevig Mission Native Corporation, the Nome Chamber of Commerce, BSNC, Kawerak regional training, the Mayor of the City of Nome, Bering Straits Development Council, Anderson and Sons mining, Chee Kong Toh, Construction Machinery Industrial, Sivuqaq Inc. Resource Development Council and the Alaska Miners Association.
Crafford said he received 25 faxes that were identically worded. The faxes were NovaGold form letter faxes signed and sent by 25 companies from Anchorage, Fairbanks, Whitehorse/Yukon, Soldotna, Wassilla and California.
Crafford stressed that the 14 letters of concern that he received get the bulk of the large mine team's attention. "The form letters are types of comments that don't carry anywhere near the weight as the comments by somebody who had spent a lot of time and effort on a letter of concern," said Crafford.
Crafford also said that he wants to assure the public that even though the large mine team's time is paid by NovaGold to streamline the permitting process, they cannot buy the decision to sign the permits. "I would like to stress that the large mine team is a team of professionals who spend a lot of time and consideration on the permits. It is not like a mining company comes in and throws permit drafts on our table and we're left to decide whether or not to issue the permits. No, we are going over different options with them and expressing our concerns," he said. "There is a lot of give and take and making changes involved."
For example, he said, AGC was mad at the large mine team for their independent engineer's opinion that the acid rock drainage potential is quite substantial at Big Hurrah.
Crafford explained the process, saying that assuming the permits are issued, DNR and DEC will post a public notice, and the public has a 30-day period for interested parties to file appeals. Regarding the DNR, appeals need to be filed directly to DNR commissioner Mike Menge.
Jim Wolfe, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers Section 404 permit (dealing with wetland disturbance and destruction), said that he received between 50 and 60 comments. "At the top of my head, I think that about five comments were against the mine and the rest were in favor," he said. Wolfe added, "Not until a decision is made can those letters be made public."
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