The Niblack Project — a copper-gold-zinc-silver mining exploration project on Prince of Wales Island — is a story of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) mismanaging a modern mining exploration project. It’s a case study of how a mine can become a toxic waste site dumping poisoned effluent into clean Alaska waters despite a permitting system installed to protect Alaska’s waters. It’s both a cautionary tale and a problem that needs to be addressed.
Niblack Mining Corp. received permits to tunnel underground for exploration in 2007. With sulfide rock in their route, a plan was formed to deal with Potentially Acid Generating (PAG) rock by temporarily storing it on a lined and covered pad on the surface, returning it underground at the two-year project’s end.
Initially, regulators arguably did fine. Niblack used qualified consultants and received a permit for a temporary lined waste rock pile. A Land Application Discharge (LAD) system was designed to drip water from the tunnel and PAG pile through pipes onto the forest floor. The LAD system allowed Niblack to avoid applying for an Alaska Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (APDES) permit to discharge to surface waters. A chemical water treatment plant was also built on site.
But with project construction, cracks in the DEC-approved plan appeared. The PAG site, according to a May 2008 inspection report, lacked protective fill in the bedding below the liner and the vehicle service layer above. Despite regulators’ misgivings about site conditions, including use of a thinner backslope liner material, allowances were given because of the PAG pile’s intended short life. The pile was also supposed to be sprayed with an impervious polymer cover to prevent rainwater infiltration that could lead to acid-generating conditions.
That never happened. Worse things followed.
By October 2008, underground exploration was over. It was time to haul the PAG rock back underground and seal the adit with a waterproof concrete plug. Instead, new owner CBR Gold Corp. placed the project into temporary closure. In January 2009, it requested the state’s permission to leave the PAG pile uncovered and exposed to precipitation with “large-scale kinetic testing” as the flimsy excuse.
Inexplicably, the state acquiesced. The pile was left exposed. By June 2009, CBR Gold had entered into a sale agreement for the property and management changed hands again.
In the 13 years since DEC allowed the pile to be left uncovered, the PAG rock has dropped in pH. The resulting weak sulphuric acid has begun leaching toxic metals from the now-exposed rock surfaces.
With water quality deteriorating and the new owners claiming hardship in keeping the LAD drip system operational, DEC authorized polluted water to be discharged directly into marine waters at Moira Sound. DEC then attempted to expand the new mixing zone by 10 times and double the level of copper discharged daily. The chemical water treatment plant remains unused; too costly to staff and operate according to DEC. Meanwhile, new ownership has appeared, again.
While various owners have cut their losses and moved on, Alaska is left with highly toxic metals-laden effluent pouring into its waters — all authorized and abetted by an agency charged with protecting those waters. No state agency should be left to make such poor decisions unchallenged. And no mining project should be sold off with a developing toxic mess left behind.
SEACC and Earthjustice filed for an informal review of the latest discharge permit, which was remanded in June 2022 with special attention to the antidegradation and anti-backsliding provisions of the Clean Water Act. As of this writing, no decision has been made on the permit remand.
Now, Niblack’s current owner Blackwolf Copper and Gold could receive up to $125 million for construction of a mine at Niblack and an associated processing facility in Ketchikan.
The financier? The state. But with a toxic waste pile needlessly leaching metals into Moira Sound, we at SEACC think there might be other things to focus on.
Aaron Brakel is SEACC’s Inside Passage Waters Program Manager