Pebble Mine and the threat to Alaska

Story by Mark Hume with Photography by Erin McKittrick

On the website of the corporate conglomerate promoting development of a massive mine above Alaska’s fabled Lake Iliamna, and Bristol Bay, is a reference to British Columbia’s great Fraser River sockeye run of 2010.

The South Fork Koktuli River

The video posted by the Pebble Partnership maintains that, because there are active mines in the Fraser watershed, the big run is proof that open pit copper mines and salmon can happily co-exist.

In Alaska, Bristol Bay has its own world class fishery and is home to its own world class copper deposit, Pebble, says a cheery announcer as graphics show salmon popping out of the water all over the place. Like the Fraser River, it’s not about trading one resource for another, it’s about mining and fisheries co-existing.

But the ad is woefully misleading.

There are open pit copper mines in the Fraser watershed; one near Logan Lake and the other near Williams Lake. But neither of them sits as does the proposed Pebble Mine on a lacework of salmon streams and rivers. The Gibraltar and Highland Valley mines, which have created massive impoundments of pollutants, do not drain into the Fraser. At least, so far they don’t, but check back in 50 or 100 years for an update and we’ll see if those impoundments have leaked.

By contrast, the Pebble Mine deposit sprawls across the drainages of the North Fork and South Fork of the Koktuli River, and the Upper Talorik.

If the Pebble mine is built, it could leach acid runoff into Lake Iliamna and Bristol Bay, polluting what are probably the best salmon and trout waters in the world. It is because of this great risk that one of the most impressive coalitions of outdoor groups ever seen has been formed. In a letter in February, more than 360 organizations signed a letter asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to protect Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine threat.

Brian Kraft, a lodge owner in Alaska, said the proposed mine could destroy one of the world’s most productive fish and game habitats, kill tourism to this international hunting and fishing mecca, and eliminate jobs from the United States.

Chris Wood, President and CEO of Trout Unlimited, described Bristol Bay as the single most important wild salmon fishery in the world.

He said it generates about $450 million annually in economic impact and sustains some 12,000 jobs.

We are confident that after the science and other public input are considered, the EPA and the Obama Administration will stand with sport and commercial fishermen and the people of Alaska to protect the extraordinary ecological, economic and cultural value of this place and this fishery,” Mr. Wood said in a statement released along with the letter to the EPA.

The letter, which was addressed to EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson, urged her to use all the tools at your disposal to protect a sport fishing and hunting destination that is unrivaled in America and perhaps the world, for this and future generations of sportsmen and women.

Islands in the Nushagak River, near the Mulchatna River confluence.

It said the proposed mine, which would process 200,000 tons of ore a day, and store waste in an impoundment with walls up to 685 feet high, poses numerous significant and potentially long-lasting threats to one of the world’s foremost sport fishing and hunting regions.

The mine would produce between 2.5 and 10 billion tons of waste, including heavy metals and arsenic, which would for thousands of years pose an acid mine drainage threat to several productive fishery areas.

If this project moves forward, these toxins would have to be contained and potentially treated in perpetuity in an area of high seismic activity, which increases the risks tremendously, states the letter, in reference to the high number of earth quakes that rock the area yearly. A tremor that caused an impoundment wall to crumble would unleash a toxic brew that would wash through the system.

Because the Pebble property straddles the Kvichak and Nushagak river drainages two of the most productive salmon systems on the planet any release of this waste into the surface or groundwater has the potential to severely harm Bristol Bay’s salmon and the livelihoods of the sport fishing and hunting business owners, all of whom depend on them for their economic support, states the letter.

Sporting groups from every state signed the letter as did supporters from Canada, the U.K., France, Finland and Singapore.

The letter itself was only two pages long the list of signatories went on for another 22 pages.

The variety of groups opposed to this mine is a testament to how remarkable the Bristol Bay fishery is. It is an international treasure, known and loved by fishermen from around the world.

Dr. Richard Allen, Past President of the Dallas Safari Club, put it this way: This unique, wild country stands today as God intended, and a mine in the heart of Bristol Bay would cause irrevocable harm. The real gold mine is already in Bristol Bay it’s the salmon, trout, wildlife and the jobs and American families that those fish support.

Drill rig on the divide between Upper Talarik Creek and South Fork Koktuli River, Pebble East.

Whit Fosburgh, President and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, described Bristol Bay as our last great stronghold for wild salmon.

The alliance against the Pebble Mine is unlike anything we’ve seen before. But the proponents are powerful too.

Three of the world’s large mining companies have direct interests in the Pebble Project: Anglo American, which is based in London, England; Rio Tinto, a global player headquartered in the U.K., and Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., a mineral exploration and development company based in Vancouver, B.C.

Northern Dynasty is affiliated with Taseko Mines, which in late 2010 had its proposal to develop a massive open pit copper mine in the Fraser River drainage turned down by the federal government.

Bald eagle resting on a log along the Nushagak River

When the Pebble Partnership posted that video about how copper mines and salmon can happily co-exist, they conveniently overlooked the failure of the Prosperity proposal. That mine was rejected mostly because of the fisheries damage it would have done. A federal environmental review panel concluded the mine, would result in significant adverse environmental effects on:

Fish and fish habitat;
Navigation;
Current use of lands and resources for traditional purposes by First Nations and on cultural heritage; and
Certain potential or established Aboriginal rights or title.
The Panel also concluded that the project, in combination with past, present and reasonably foreseeable future projects would result in a significant adverse cumulative effect on:

Grizzly bears in the South Chilcotin region; and
Fish and fish habitat.
Canada can say no to a massive open pit mine to protect fisheries values, then surely Alaska and the U.S. federal government can do no less in Bristol Bay, which has been called the most productive salmon ecosystem in the world.

Want to know more about the Pebble Mine? Go to Alaska Trekking’s page at. http://www.aktrekking.com/pebble/index.html and the Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd website at http://www.northerndynastyminerals.com/ndm/Home.asp