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Pebble Mine and History

Butte, Montana has a couple of distinguishing claims to fame; one controversial, the other, not so much.  What is controversial is that Butte boasts to being the headwaters of the Columbia River.  The Canadians and Wikipedia would sharply disagree, but state and federal government and non-profit websites point to Silver Bow Creek in Butte as the headwaters to the Clark Fork River, a “major headwaters stream” of the Columbia River.  Anyone who knows rivers knows that if you start with forks, you end up with the main body of the river sometime downhill. If you trace the Columbia River upstream from the Pacific Coast, you will note that it splits into several forks somewhere in Washington.  One National Park Service map doesn’t even show the Columbia River having any origins in British Columbia.

But the other Butte claim to fame that is not in dispute is that it contains one of the most contaminated sites in the United States – the Berkeley Pit of the Kelley Mine.  The Anaconda Company broke ground on the pit in 1955, and by 1962 had removed approximately 4.4 million tons of waste rock, reaching a pace of 320,000 tons per day of ore and waste combined.  The company used large ore trucks called “ukes,” running them around the clock, seven days a week, at a rate of no less than 1,600 truckloads a day. The Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) purchased the pit in 1977 and ceased mining it by 1982 because it became less profitable.  In the end, the pit measured 7,000 feet long, 5,600 feet wide, and 1,800 feet deep.  During its 25 years of operation, 700 million pounds of waste rock were removed.

The Berkeley Pit earned the nickname “The Richest Hill on Earth,” at least until copper prices began a precipitous slide in 1975.

But digging an 1,800-foot deep pit in the ground was not without consequences.  The pit is located in an area with active groundwater movement.  During the life of its operations, the mining companies kept water out of the pit by using pumps.  When ARCO shut down the pit, it also turned off the pumps.  The groundwater that had been held back for decades returned,slowly filling the pit with a volume of 40 billion gallons.  And that water mixed with oxidized sulfides, commonly found with exposed copper deposits, produced a strongly acidic bath.  In 1995, 342 snow geese landed on those waters and were dead within two days.  Following ARCO’s claims that a fungus had killed the birds, a branch of the Montana Department of Justice examined the birds, noting corroded esophagi and tracheae, as well as bloated livers and kidneys.  In 2007, there was another incident where 17 snow geese, 10 mallard ducks, nine goldeneye ducks and one swan were found floating dead.

As I stood looking over the edge of the pit, standing on piles of waste rock heaped upon the hillside above, my nostrils bristled with the strong smell of sulfides.  The odor sometimes made it hard to focus on the task of taking photos.  I could only imagine what it would have been like for those snow geese.  I was very happy I was wearing some stout boots.

The Berkeley Pit is now one of the largest Superfund sites in the United States, presenting significant water quality management challenges for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.  It operated under the Mining Law of 1872 and subsequent laws amending it, which essentially govern how to establish a mining claim.  The point of the law was to promote settlement and development of public lands in the West, and has left behind a scarred legacy.  According to the State of Alaska, the Alaska Constitution, article VIII, section 11 was modeled after this law.  Alaska Governor Sean Parnell even recently named May 10 “Mining Day” in honor of this law.  The Berkeley Pit also managed to shape its toxic legacy long after numerous water pollution laws were passed: the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1972), Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), and the Clean Water Act (1977).  Montana’s own Water Quality Act was first passed in 1971.  Thus, despite numerous laws in place, the Berkeley Pit is an environmental disaster.

In its May/June 2011 Pebble Partnership Newsletter, the Pebble Partnership touted recent tours with “stakeholders” of the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah and the Cortez Hills mine of Nevada as examples of how “mines operating under modern regulations are protecting themselves and the environment.”  The newsletter does not mention the Kelley Mine and its Berkeley Pit.  It also fails to mention that the Bingham Canyon Mine, owned and operated by the Kennecott Copper Company, had contaminated eight nearby sites, including several waterways and neighborhoods, by 1990. It is still under supervision by the EPA for cleanup in connection with the agency’s Superfund program.  The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has also been involved investigating and implementing cleanup of the mine’s contamination of the area.  The Cortez Hills reference is also interesting in that Barrick Gold of North America is moving forward with its expansion of that gold mine against staunch opposition from local Indian Tribes.  Neither of these points can be very reassuring to Alaskans, particularly Alaska Natives, who are opposed to the mine.  Of course, neither of these two mines are situated in salmon spawning and rearing areas, or at the headwaters of a world-class sockeye salmon fishery.

The Kennecott Copper Mine near McCarthy, Alaska, is also cited by the Pebble Partnership as proof of how copper mines and salmon can coexist.  The Pebble Partnership asserts that since copper was mined there a hundred years ago, and the Copper River enjoys strong sockeye salmon runs today, copper is not always harmful to salmon.

The Kennecott Copper Mine first went operational in 1911, when the first ore train hauled 70% copper ore from the mill town down to Cordova on the Prince William Sound, some 197 miles away.  (In contrast, the Pebble mine site is only 11 miles away from the Village of Nondalton, 15 miles from Lake Iliamna, and 130 river miles to Bristol Bay via the Kvichak River.)  The mill town of Kennecott, built near the lateral moraine of the Kennecott Glacier and five miles from the nearest river, is now a historical landmark and managed by Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve.  The Kennecott Glacier creates the Kennecott River, which flows into the Nizina River, which flows into the Chitina River, which flows into the Copper River at the village of Chitina, approximately 60 miles away. The locations where the copper was actually mined were spread out among five mines at distances of up to nearly 4 miles away from the mill facilities, and up to nine miles away from the Kennecott River up in the mountains.  Only one of the mines, the Glacier Mine, was an open pit mine.

During its 27 years of operation, the Kennecott Copper Mine produced 4.625 million tons of ore with an average quality of 13% copper, which is considered a high grade ore.  The mine peaked in operations only five years after it started, and declining copper prices in the late 1920s eventually led to the mine ceasing operations in 1938.

There are several reasons why the Kennecott Copper Mine is not a good comparison, from a logical or public relations perspective, to the proposed Pebble Mine.

First, the proposed Pebble Mine would be situated immediately at the headwaters, even displacing some of those waters, for Upper Talarik Creek (which flows to Lake Iliamna, which is the headwaters for the Kvichak River and flows into Bristol Bay) and the South Fork of the Koktuli River (which flows into the Mulchatna River, then the Nushagak River, and then Bristol Bay).  The Kennecott Mine had no hydrological connections to the Copper River, and its only open pit, the Glacier Mine, did not utilize a tailings pond like the Pebble Mine will.  The Pebble Mine would be also situated in the midst of an area that has extensive groundwater movement and connections between groundwater and surface waters.  It is not known what the connections were like at the Kennecott Mine, but the arid regions of Utah and Nevada certainly do not have the saturated grounds found out in Bristol Bay in the Pebble Prospect vicinity.

Second, salmon do not use the Nizina or Chitina rivers near the Kennecott mine for salmon rearing.  However, numerous streams and waterways in the vicinity of the proposed Pebble Mine site, including Upper Talarik Creek and the South Fork of the Koktuli River, are primary spawning and rearing habitat.


Third, one of the more significant distinctions between the Kennecott Mine and the proposed Pebble Mine is the quality of ore.  The average quality for the Kennecott ore was 13%, but the estimated concentration of the ore in the Pebble claims is 0.34%.  That leads to only 6.8 pounds of copper per ton of ore.  If the Pebble Partnership’s estimates of 55 billion pounds of copper are correct, the company will have to extract 16 trillion pounds of ore to extract the full copper deposit.  That’s over 2,000 times the amount of ore pulled out at Kennecott.  And that does not include the similarly-low quality of gold ore and molybdenum ore that the Pebble Partnership will have to extract in order to access those riches.

Finally, and this is the worst message the Pebble Partnership would want to project, the Kennecott Copper Company completely abandoned its facilities after worldwide copper prices crashed.  Kennecott Copper Company’s Robber Baron exploitation of Alaska’s natural resources is one of the reasons why Territorial leaders pushed to bring Alaska into the Union as a state – to make sure that never happened again.  If that mine is an appropriate analogy, then the residents of the Bristol Bay region can count on the Pebble Partnership to abandon the Pebble Mine and its facilities when it is no longer economically viable.  (For a more comprehensive comparison of these issues related to Kennecott and Pebble, read Copper River and Bristol Bay: A Comparison of Salmon and Mineral Resources.)

The Pebble Partnership has also pointed to the success of sockeye salmon on the Fraser River in British Columbia as an example of how copper mines and salmon can co-exist, but that may not be a good choice for analogy, either.  There likely isno mine in Alaska that offers a fair comparison.  And maybe that’s the point.

For a comprehensive analysis of water quality impacts on ten case studies of mining operations around the world, readTroubled Waters: How Mine Waste Dumping is Poisoning our Oceans, Rivers, and Lakes published by Earthworks and MiningWatch Canada.



16 Responses to “Pebble Mine and History”
  1. mike from iowa says:

    On the bright side,with all that waste rock laying around,rethugs could use it to fill the heads of all babies born in the future. Since the kids won’t be allowed to have an education and will all act like they have rocks in their heads,maybe this would help rethugs with some truth in advertising and narrow their credibility(or whatever the word used by the Wasilla nutter was) gap.

  2. mike from iowa says:

    Remember the good old days when Korporate Amerika was held resposible for creating toxic waste dumps and actually paid the “Superfund Tax” to clean up these disasters so American taxpayers wouldn’t have to?And then along came the rwnj spider that downed the SF Tax and saved billions for shareholders and forced taxpayers to clean up someone else’s messes. The lesson nutters want you tro remember is Korporate Amerika reigns soopreme. They have the bought and paid for pols of both parties to protect their money from harm(taxes). Rethugs and KA will never quit,even after taking everything and leaving a mess for their Grandchildren.

  3. juneaudream says:

    As always..interesting reading. How about we create a swimwear design..sporting a pebble mine logo..and have all the ‘For it’ groups and corp. involved..slip those lycra puppys on..and take a 1 hour ‘swim’ the assorted waters..of leftover pit mines. Then..take a full-on drink of a liter of the water they just stepped out of..neat to speak ( Yes..I AM..a witch! ; ) Wait a month..and be flown to another area of similar ..water-quality wonderment..over the next year and a half. In would be interesting to see a mash up..of a map from the air..with a month by month, color coded pattern..showing the ..inroads..of the break in down..and then..expand it..patterns that would put in places, road bit by road bit..and also..the ..’side view’..showing the excavations..and the dam raisings. Make the picture..clear, specific..and showing in what would be..’real time’..the instant the first ..’remodeling’..happens. Lets see what it is..that is ..’said to be happening’..vs..what actually happens. Designers and and artists around the country have ..modeling..programs so that this bastardasation of habitat..can be seen before hand..and..watched over. We are..the family of man..but we are even more..the family of life..and all life..says we are kin. Salmon, lichen, mountain duff and sulfided-feathers..beating softly..upon beach gravels. Would the plans for the pebble mine be done/attended to..if someone was not going to be making a heap….of money? Oh I where you tell the over….

  4. Valley_Independent says:

    Ah, yes. Butte, the city that is a mile high and a mile deep. I loved my time there. Some of the old miners I met there lamented the loss of Columbia Gardens, which was certainly a much nicer community asset than the Berkeley Pit.

    Mining is a necessary thing, but some places and some methods of mining are simply not worth the risk.

    In this political climate, there are those who wish to eliminate what standards we have, and to reduce the reclamation and bonding requirements of the companies doing the mining.

    There are many areas from which mining companies profited, then left the taxpayers to foot the bill for the cleanup. Are there any good data sets available comparing financial benefit to the public to publicly funded cleanup costs?

  5. Zyxomma says:

    This is an excellent post, although I read Krubozumo Nyankoye’s answer before posting my own, because I was certain he’d address any fallacies, and he has done so.

    There is, of course, another issue that isn’t addressed here (although it has been discussed previously). This area is way too active seismically for the safe construction of an open pit mine with sky high earthen dams to contain the mining waste! Even small earthquakes (and there have been large ones in the area) could cause widescale contamination of groundwater and nearby streams. It’s just too close for comfort for the salmon.

    Salmon are renewable, as long as their environment is pristine or close to it. In my opinion, Alaska should be concentrating on its renewable resources, rather than extractive industries that devastate the environment, whether mining, drilling (another type of mining), or timber. Clear cutting forests, open pit mining, and drilling for natural gas and oil in environmentally sensitive areas should all be consigned to the scrap heap of human history. They should not be playing such a prominent role in the 21st century. Just one woman’s opinion. Health and peace.

    • Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

      Zyxomma- –

      Here here. Or is it hear hear? I’m not sure.

      Yes the seismic threat is real and significant. It should certainly be included. I don’t know anything about the construction of “earthen dams” but unless they have an impermiable barrier between water and dam, liguifaction alone could cause them to fail catastrophically in even relatively small earthquaks. A citation for that would be effect on certain buildings in SFO when the Loma Prieta quake occurred. It was not a big quake.

      While I agree with the general conclusion of your third paragraph, it should be pointed out that this kind of transition cannot be accomplished in a short time frame. On no authority whatever I would venture to guess that at the very best it would require two or three decades to close down the fossil carbon fuel industries entirely which is what, ultimately, we have to do.

      If I may I would like to make one point further to your POV. We must realize that burning FOSSIL carbon is our problem. Transitioning to an environment that mitigates global warming and climate change does not mean abandoning any and all forms of carbon burning technology, it just means using sources of carbon that are already a part of the global system. So it is important to make the distinction that our problem is from burning fossil carbon.

      Luckily, I am not young, so there is a good chance I will not live to see how this question ultimately comes to affect humanity in general. There is no doubt in my mind at present that it is having an effect. In a certain way it saddens me, it is a little like watching a chess prodigy in a contest against the grand master come to the determinative game drunk.


      (Incidently for Carl, those are not my initials, my initials are KN, KBO is a sign off Churchill used in some of his missives during his career. Stand for Keep Buggering On.

      • Carl says:


        Thanks for the clarification. I was wondering what the “KBO” was. I’m not much of a Churchill historian.

        • Krubozumo Nyankoye says:


          Nor am I, but it came to my attention in ready things I don’t usually read.

          It is a little strange, but there are some strong parallels between the warnings
          of dire threat that Churchill made throught the 1930s and out present circumstances
          teetering as we are upon the brink of environmental catastrophes of unprecedented

          All I can say is that if I was 35 years old right now the situation we face would scare
          the hell out of me.

          Since I am old, and know that in a while I will be dead, I don’t care quite so much.

          I do hope that my criticisms were constructive and enhanced your ability to argue a sound and very important point of view. That is how they were intended.

          • mike from iowa says:

            Sorry,Bud,but you are not allowed to die. Our side needs all of us and as many converts as we can get-forever-so long as a single rwnj heartbeats in unison with Korporate profits. As long as THEY exist,no one is assured of a peaceful here or hereafter.

          • slackjaw says:

            That’s absurd to compare Churchill’s quotes to the environmental crusade!

            Keep dreaming and telling yourself global warming is real!

  6. beth. says:

    Scary, scary, scary stuff. We lived for 3 years (8/1976 – 11/1978) in Falcon Manor, Niagara Falls, NY. Love Canal is still on my mind.

    Should the proposed Pebble Mine’s containment system fail, there is no way they can remedy it. As Burns so truly noted: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men….” beth.

    Love Canal part 1 of 2 (Modern Marvels Engineering Disasters) —

    Love Canal part 2 of 2 (Modern Marvels Engineering Disasters) —

  7. Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

    Yes I would say to a certain extent a good job, but I have to argue a few points, not so much out of pedentry as overall accuracy because if we do not know what we are talking about, then whatever solution we devise for solving the problems we face will necessarily be wrong.

    To begin with, yes, it makes a bit of sense to consider the history of the Berkely pit versus the possible future of the Pebble mine. The author of the op neglected to mention that they are similar in another, even more worrying sense in that both include substantial underground mine development.

    I have to say, there are a few points in this essay that are not only unsupported but refutable. I’ll give an example:

    “Third, one of the more significant distinctions between the Kennecott Mine and the proposed Pebble Mine is the quality of ore. The average quality for the Kennecott ore was 13%, but the estimated concentration of the ore in the Pebble claims is 0.34%. That leads to only 6.8 pounds of copper per ton of ore. If the Pebble Partnership’s estimates of 55 billion pounds of copper are correct, the company will have to extract 16 trillion pounds of ore to extract the full copper deposit. That’s over 2,000 times the amount of ore pulled out at Kennecott. And that does not include the similarly-low quality of gold ore and molybdenum ore that the Pebble Partnership will have to extract in order to access those riches.

    Well, is it not plausible that circumstances have changed since Kennecot and that the cut off grade of ore from a copper mine has been pushed down by many factors only to mention those of demand and cost to produce. More to the point however, is the falsehood that other elements must undergo a sort of reprocessing, as if the costs of production were multiplied. That is not at all the case, all the economic
    minerals in ore are extracted more or less equally in a single process. They are each refined to purity on an individual basis because well, it is intuitively obvious. But the key point is the extraction of “ore” for processing is not a redundant task, it is parallel and simultaneous. Further to that, in a copper/gold porphyry such as Pebble appears to be, the gold content is always a small fraction of the copper content.

    So I’d be willing to have a conversation over this topic if the OP is willing.


    • Carl says:


      I appreciate the feedback. You are correct that both the Kelley Mine and the Pebble Mine have or would involve considerable underground development. My focus was on the issue of groundwater infiltration to an open pit resource.

      However, the issue of the economics of copper processing is not a concern of the piece. Rather, the piece focuses on the estimated quality of the ore and the amount of waste rock that would need to be produced in order to extract the ore. It is, after all, the Pebble Partnership that has made the comparison to the Kennicott Mine. I was simply looking for meaningful points of comparison. I am sure that the folks at Pebble have decided that, despite the considerably lower quality grade ore, it is still economically viable for them given the volume of estimated output.

      • Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

        Carl, Ithank you for a polite and well thought out response. It is very refreshing compared to other dialogs I have had on the “net”.

        My point with respect to the underground works is that they too communicate directly with the water table.. I am no hydrologist but the history of the Berkeley pit as I understand it is one of the underground works being the prime source of water table contamination. Never the less the point is really moot but I wanted to make it because to be effective at all we have to be credible, in a virtually unassailable fashion, else any objects will be dismissed by a confection of well paid for ‘scientific’ rebuttals.

        It is hard for me to admit, but it is blatently true that many of my peers are up for sale to the highest bidder.

        As to your response to the economic point I guess I failed to explain what I intended to explain, for that I am apologetic because I might have seemed pedantic. The reality is there are no more 13% copper deposits to be found, let alone exploited. For more than a century we have (Homo sapiens) exploited our limited environment for resources of every description at increasing rates. To try to explain again my point was this: grades as low as 0.34% copper per tonne are the presently economically feasible grade that can be mined and make a profit. A few years ago copper cost less than a doller per pound, now it is over 3 times that approximately. So a simple intuitive guess would show that the “cut off grade”, would be about 1/3 of what it was back when the price was low.

        I’ll go out on a limb here and give a bit more information. I am just sundowning a project here in Brasil that is almost an exact parallel with Pebble except for three or four factors. I don’t really think those factors make much difference but if you want to discuss them I am willing. They are: difference in age, presence in intensely metemorphosed terrain, absence of tertiary mineral signture (Mb), the possibility of overprints from subsequent metamorphic events such as the Trans-Amazonion Oregeny.

        Thank you again for your resoned response. My objective it to provide information, not discourage opposition to the ill-concieved Pebble mine.

  8. Alaska Pi says:

    Good job Carl!
    The Woody/Chambers Copper River and Bristol Bay Comparison is a good one to put some perspective on a number of the issues involved.
    Thank you.