Just two months ago, Alaskans remembered the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the largest environmental disaster in the state’s history. Most of the reporting then, as now, focused on the toll it took on the environment and how Alaskans responded. Little has been told about the mental distress communities of the Gulf of Alaska experienced.
Post-spill studies found that people engaged in cleanup were more likely to suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Similarly, Alaska Natives and commercial fishermen who lost their livelihoods and important cultural resources showed a significant increase and prevalence of psychiatric disorders. Research also showed an increase in reported substance abuse and domestic violence, a decline in social relations, an increase of social conflict and a perceived decline in overall public health.
Apart from the inevitable damage to the natural environment, the Exxon Valdez experience suggests that the spill also contaminated the social environment with wide-ranging mental health consequences.
The communities of Bristol Bay today, much like the communities of Prince William Sound before and after the spill, are confronted with uncertainty related to large-scale environmental change.
Alaskans’ experience with the oil spill was real. The perceived risk related to large-scale mining development is real, too.
Pebble’s draft Environmental Impact Statement misleads the public by presenting a mining footprint and mine life far smaller and shorter than the megamine necessary to attract investors and move toward development. The potential for an ever-expanding mine footprint — and the potential for development of nearby claims made feasible by Pebble’s infrastructure — creates uncertainty and stress about the extent to which mining will transform the Bristol Bay landscape and the lives of its residents. Even if there is never a mining-related environmental disaster, the mere possibility of events such as a catastrophic tailings dam failure, coupled with the degradation of an ecosystem that has fed residents for eons, will alter how many Bristol Bay residents experience the health of their region, people and culture.
Pebble’s draft EIS grossly understates and inadequately assesses such health risks and fails to analyze the types and levels of distress that inevitably accompany a socially and environmentally disruptive megaproject.
For projects such as Pebble Mine, the lead federal agency often requests a health impact assessment along with the EIS during the permitting process. An assessment analyzes an array of data sources and stakeholder input to characterize likely health impacts and predict how those impacts will be distributed within the population. More importantly, it provides recommendations for monitoring and managing those effects once the project moves forward. The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the assessment, which is conducted by a contractor in collaboration with the Alaska Department of Health and Human Services, while the Alaska Department of Natural Resources is ultimately responsible for releasing the assessment to the public.
While not required by law, the Army Corps of Engineers has not asked for an assessment as part of the Pebble Mine draft EIS. While the draft EIS claims to include the components of a health impact statement, it does little more than list categories of potential health and safety risks and catalog baseline demographic information.
It’s surprising that a permitting agency would not elect to assess and mitigate the health impacts associated with a megaproject such as the proposed Pebble Mine, especially considering that health impact assessments were conducted for smaller proposed projects such as the Chuitna Coal, Wishbone Hill Coal and Donlin Gold mines.
We ask the Army Corps of Engineers to facilitate a health impact assessment that considers a full build-out of the Pebble project and all foreseeable cumulative impacts. We also ask the Alaska Department of Natural Resources — as a general rule — release all health impact assessments to the public. Alaskans deserve a rigorous assessment of risks to their physical and mental health. Alaskans also deserve transparent governance that allows the public to know and understand these risks before permits are issued.
Alaskans have been here before. Double-hull tankers were mandated only after the Exxon Valdez cracked open. On the recent anniversary of the spill, U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan introduced a Senate resolution that states, “The Exxon Valdez must be a constant reminder that, in our pursuit of developing Alaska’s abundant, world-class natural resources, our state and federal government must always have responsible safeguards in place to protect our people and the pristine lands and waters we all cherish.”
In the case of Pebble Mine, let’s remind our senators we need a rigorous airing of all the potential impacts — to both the environment and human health. And this time, let’s do it before the oil is spilled.
Corrina Rinella is a mental health professional specializing in treating trauma and substance abuse patients. Tobias Schwoerer is a natural resource economist specializing in sustainability and resource management. Both live in Anchorage and have lived and worked in Alaska for nearly 20 years.