Brazilian Tailings Dam Failure Highlights Pebble Mine's Risk to Bristol Bay

A tailings dam at the Germano open-pit iron ore mine in Brazil burst yesterday, washing away an entire neighboring community. Tragically, there are at least two confirmed deaths and over a dozen people still missing.

It's being called the country's worst dam breach. And it was caused when a tailings dam owned by two of the world's biggest mining companies - Australian BHP Billiton and Brazilian Vale SA - unexpectedly failed.

The Germano mine began operations in 1977 and is not your grandfather's mine. Touted as "innovative" by the mining industry, recent "achievements" include the "rehabilitation" of the existing tailings dam with the construction of a buttressing dam meant to further stabilize the existing dam and its mining waste.

BHP Billiton and Vale are two of the biggest mining companies in the world. They have the resources and wherewithal to do it right. Yet the dam and its reengineered buttress failed. The result - though unintentional - is death and destruction.

The backers of the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska tout the marvels of "modern mining." The Pebble Limited Partnership website brushes off "concerns" about a tailings dam failure because "we're confident we can build a structure to withstand the test of time... due to modern engineering and technical design."

The Pebble Limited Partnership also claimed that mining and fish could co-exist in Bristol Bay, as in the Fraser River. But that was before the tailings dam at the Mount Polley mine breached last year, dumping billions of gallons of mining sludge and threatening the runs of Fraser River salmon.

Accidents happen, and dams unintentionally fail. Even with modern engineering.

The result of a tailings dam failure at the proposed Pebble Mine would be "catastrophic" to Bristol Bay's $1.5 billion commercial fishing industry that supports 14,000 jobs, according to a three-year, twice-peer reviewed scientific study by the EPA . The salmon in Bristol Bay are the lifeblood of the region, supporting commercial and sports fishing industries, wildlife, and Alaska Native communities who have relied on the salmon for millennia.

The danger is clear. Mining is an inherently risky business, and Bristol Bay is too precious of a resource to risk.

We've seen enough mining disasters to say NO now to the Pebble Mine.

About the Authors

Taryn Kiekow Heimer

Deputy Director, Marine Mammal Protection Project, Nature Program

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