RESPONSIBLE RECLAMATION: LESSONS FROM ALASKA
by Kathryn G. Arlen
Partial statements of fact, broad generalizations, and precocious assumptions often filter into the general public’s knowledge base about the mining industry, giving even more credence to the old saying, “A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.” Reclamation of previously mined land is one prime example of public misunderstanding when methods dating back to 50 or more years are often displayed as representative of today’s practices, as Karl Hanneman of Teck Cominco Corporate Affairs (Fort Knox and Red Dog mines) stressed at a recent Fairbanks Alaska Miners Association [AMA] meeting. Any value from the graphic representations of yesterday’s unconscientious mining practices should today serve as nothing more than an emphasis on “look how far we’ve come” and a continuing reminder that just because it happened then doesn’t mean it’s happening now.
Larry Peterson, of Travis/Peterson Environmental Consulting, Inc. agreed as he expressed his ongoing frustration with comments from people “blowing steam about leachate [liquid material] from landfills…The current practice for a landfill is that you put a clay liner underneath it, like we have here in Fairbanks, sloped to the drain, and the drain collects all that...and it’s sent through to the sewage treatment plant.”
Other misunderstandings about mining-related topics and the entire reclamation issue may generate from the differing goals/definitions and recommended possibilities for re-establishing, re-inventing, or (suggested) restoring mineral and resource-exhausted lands. Peterson vividly reiterated that “trying to put the land back exactly the way you found it is restoration, and that’s impossible,” and to recreate the original stream or channel bed, etc. could happen “only in an ideal world.” The more logical, preferable plan is to shape and provide a wide flood plain [while sorting and filling the organics and other overburden] and “let the stream adjust on its own.”
Mining reclamation in much of Alaska is not necessarily difficult, but it is time-consuming and expensive, as Peterson first explained, and Hanneman cited the lengthy, $305 million three-stage price tag for reclaiming the currently operating Red Dog mine in remote northwest Alaska. Any appropriate reclamation plan, Hanneman continued, must be based “on the strength of the science,” and in Alaska reclamation plans are submitted for approval from a variety of agencies basically as soon as the land is first disturbed. While still in operation, the Red Dog has already started some re-vegetation, and the adjacent Aqqaluk deposit—to pick up where the Red Dog leaves off—is now receiving final reclamation permitting approval.
To date the most stellar example of Alaskan mine reclamation would be the Usibelli coal mine in the Healy/Fairbanks area. A third generation family-owned and operated enterprise, the Usibelli family took it upon themselves to ensure healthy and attractive land reclamation years before any governmental agency required such action. Why? Family values, and “It was the right thing to do,” stated Bill Brophy, Usibelli’s Vice-president of Customer Relations. But such an attitude reflects a basic Alaskan consensus: “Alaskans generally want to maintain Alaska which means responsible use of our resources,” he continued, re-emphasizing that “environmental stewardship of the land is important business to the Usibelli family.” The Usibelli program involves annual aerial seeding of a complex mixture of seeds and grasses, fertilizing, and hand-planting various woody seedlings, and all accomplished with the help of local university students.
Vegetation is just one part of reclamation concerns. Other issues, according to Melissa Riordan with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Regulator Divison, include soil properties and hydrology, especially for any land designated as [jurisdictional] wetlands. The Corps, which has identified much of Alaska as wetlands, requires certain permits based on its jurisdictional manual, and appropriate mining reclamation in the state of Alaska must adhere to these requirements, especially when dealing with permafrost conditions.
Other departments, both state and federal, play prominent roles in Alaskan reclamation projects and often compete over ideal land usage plans. Fairbanks attorney Mary Nordale, past president of AMA and member of its Board of Directors, first commented that “while we have some really good regulators in the Department of Natural Resources (DNR)…industry comes along and hires them away.” And then there are the separate department issues also involving Parks and Recreation and Fish and Game. These can center on the variety of regulations that “sort of take over all of the decision-making with respect to the land uses,” she added. Native-owned land is also part of this picture, so, all-told, basically three different land-owners provide mining possibilities: Federal, State, and Native, each with its own agenda and regulation requirements (although native corporations operate independently while still in cooperation with most mining industry interests.)
Along with regulations and diversity inevitably come the politics and rhetoric, especially because the National Park Service owns so much land up here. “The issues can really be political, and Alaska has a burden to carry in terms of the politics. It is truly sort of the ‘Last Frontier,’” Nordale concluded, “and it represents something to people who live outside and who want it to continue to hold a place in their imagination and their dreams.”
Freelance writer Kathryn G. Arlen holds a Masters degree in communication and is a member of the Alaska Miners Association in Fairbanks, Alaska. She can be reached at email@example.com.