Except for TV commercials, which are laden with mixed messages and misinformation, most Alaskans know little about the mining process and have seldom seen the inner workings of a mine.
Until World War II, for example, mining was the state’s largest employer, and the industry operated under few environmental regulations. With the advent of the Clean Water Acts of 1977 and 1987 and new mining technology, most operations contain the water or leave it cleaner than before the mine opened.
Mine owners also spend millions of dollars to prevent such contamination as acid rock drainage. They place millions more dollars as a bond in the event of an accident, and they set up accounts to pay for upkeep and maintenance long after the mines cease production.
The folks in the middle Kuskokwim River drainage could use this kind of information, since the developers of the proposed Donlin Creek mine, Barrick Gold Corp. and Nova Gold Resources Inc., are nudging toward the years-long permit process.
With that thought in mind, Bob Gorman of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Mining Extension invited a handful of elders and community leaders on an intensive workshop and tour of Fort Knox, an open-pit gold mine outside Fairbanks, and Pogo, a remote, underground gold mine near Delta Junction.
Over two days, the participants rolled up their sleeves and absorbed a hands-on education. They watched conveyors and 240-ton trucks transport rock from the mines. They suffered the ear-deadening racket as giant mills ground the chunks to the size of a quarter. They observed the cyanide and carbon tanks slowly retrieve the gold and then reprocess the tailings and water.
Unlike the nuggets of mythological mother lodes, most of this bounty sizes up to microscopic flecks - 100 microns or 0.1 millimeters, thinner than notebook paper - and hides in fractures and shear zones in the granite. Fort Knox, for instance, processes about 900 ounces a day.
As part of the bargain for this training, these Lower Kuskokwim residents shared this knowledge with their communities so they could effectively participate in the Donlin mine permitting process and help determine their social and economic destiny, Gorman said.
“We’re not trying to convince anyone about the right thing to do. Communities need facts to determine what they want to do. They need the right information without a lot of passion, a lot of emotion.”
Learning about the mineral extraction process is all fine and dandy, but the most important issue for any mine, according to workshop and tour leader Bob Loeffler, is to protect the water.
With this imperative in mind, mining companies collect data for years, and every drop of water involved in the process requires a permit and must pass state and federal regulations. That process can include up to 60 permits, ranging from food service to a toilet flush, and an environmental impact statement.
In fact, the public tells the government what to study to understand a mine’s environmental effects, said Loeffler, the former director of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Mining, Land and Water.
Basically, the developers identify the risk of something happening, the consequences if something happens and a back-up plan. In the case of Fort Knox, a sump or water fence floats downhill into a tailings lake and not a drop escapes the mine. And 12 interceptor wells to pump any seepage back into the tailings lake, Loeffler said.
Similarly, Pogo engineers diverted water around or under the site so drainage and storm runoff from mill, camp, shop, site roads and tailings is collected, treated and tested under 30 different parameters to meet the state’s water quality standards prior to discharge into large mixing ponds.
Other safety measures include groundwater monitoring wells, annual fish studies on the river for at least 10 years and a seven-member stakeholder group.
“Fish act as a great monitoring tool. And in many cases the fish standards are higher than human standards,” Loeffler said.
Given the rules and regulations and the back-up plans and all the other hands-on details, Greg Roczicka of Bethel was still concerned - rightfully so - about the chemicals in the extraction process. But more importantly, he said, people need to understand the process so they can decide how mines will affect their future.
“This trip actually broadened my perspective and raised my level of comfort that it (mining) can be done in a much safer manner . . . but mining companies are in it for the profit, and it’s part of our responsibility to make sure they conform to the regulations. And that’s a pretty tall order.”
J. Mark Dudick is the media services editorial assistant for the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Mining Extension Service.