The debate over Alaska’s natural resources has recently come to a head over the proposed Pebble Mine. The mine could threaten miles of pristine watershed in the Bristol Bay region, one of the largest and most productive wild salmon habitats in the word.
The Pebble Mine project would span 20 square miles, and require a 700-foot tall earthen dam that would span several miles at the headwaters of wild rivers that flow into Bristol Bay. The dam would be larger than any other currently in existence. The mine itself would be a pit mine up to two miles wide and 1,700 feet deep. It would also require the construction of a ten square mile containment pond for the 2.5-10 billion tons of mine waste that could be generated by the project.
The land on which the proposed Pebble Mine would be developed is at the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers, which flow into Bristol Bay. There lies a large deposit of gold, copper and molybdenum. These materials exist in fine grains of sand sprinkled throughout the rock, a form called pebble. The deposit contains 80 billion pounds of copper, 110 million ounces of gold, and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum and has estimated worth is $400 billion. Ironically, copper, the most abundant valuable substance in the deposit, is an important for the production of green technology including solar panels and windmills.
The proposed mine would be implemented by the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), which is a consortium of two mining companies, Anglo-American and Northern Dynasty. Anglo-American, which is the second largest multinational mining corporation in the world, has a poor track record in preserving the natural environment while the much smaller Northern Dynasty has little experience.
According to the front page of the Pebble Partnership website, Pebble Mine is now “an idea. An idea that could help power our nation’s green energy initiatives. An idea that could bring jobs and infrastructure to Southwest Alaska, helping families remain in their villages and thrive. An idea that all of this is possible in harmony with the environment.”
However, that possibility has been called into question. The sheer size of the project, including the pit, waste containment pool and dam indicates a massive impact on the surrounding ecosystems, especially as the mine would be built in critical salmon spawning areas. In total, the Pebble Mine operation would cover an area larger than Manhattan.
One of the concerning characteristics of this particular mine is the sulfide in the ore which would be extracted, which is a very reactive substance. When sulfide is exposed to the air it forms acid that could pollute the rivers downstream. As a result mine waste would need to be constantly treated, and any leakage from the mine waste containment pools could have very negative impacts on salmon runs.
As a result of complaints from native Alaskan tribes in 2010, there was a federal investigation of Pebble Mine. Federal environmental regulators have decided to put the project on hold because of the potential risks. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy has said that the mine could have “significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries” should it be constructed.
The Bristol Bay region spans 40,000 square miles, and contains 17 state and federal parks, refuges, and critical habitat areas. Eight large river systems run into Bristol Bay. There are also multiple lakes in the Bristol Bay region, including Iliama lake, the largest freshwater lake in Alaska. According to the 2011 U.S. Census, the region had a population of 7,673, 64% of whom identify as Alaskan natives. Bristol Bay has been home to the Aleut, Alutiq, Athabascan and Yup’ik Eskimos for 10,000 years. It is famed for incredible sockeye salmon runs, which make up 7% of all wild salmon harvested. Over 16 million salmon are caught there each year.
In Bristol Bay, salmon are everything. They not only comprises an industry that drives the economy and has an impact on the entire state, but also are part of the culture of he indigenous people and have been for thousands of years.
Bristol Bay’s commercial fisheries result in 9,600 full time jobs, with $175 million in payroll each year for fish and wildlife-related employment. In Bristol Bay, anglers spend $58 million on recreational fishing each year, 47 million of which is spent by non-residents.
Subsistence fishing plays a very important role in the lives of many residents of Bristol Bay; as it plays a role in their culture and history, as well as their diets. A 2005 study showed that the average household in Kolinganek, a village in the Bristol Bay region, harvested 2,139 pounds of food; half of this intake was wild salmon. Without this source of food, every household would need to spend an extra $7,000 each year.
The Dena’ina, a group of natives within the Athabascans, and Yup’ik are among a dwindling number of salmon based cultures in the world, and the fish play a role in their art and language. One Elder interviewed for a study conducted by two anthropology professors at Kenai Peninsula College said, “If we don’t eat fish, we won’t have anything to eat. That is our health.”
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Bristol Bay’s fishing industry is its sustainability. While it is estimated that 29% of salmon species have gone extinct in the Pacific Northwest and California, no species has gone extinct in Bristol Bay.
Although the EPA has said they will continue to fight the mine, their study does not kill the project. The Pebble Limited Partnership responded, saying the study conducted by the EPA was hypothetical and inaccurate as the permit requests have not been filed and it does not consider the new engineering safeguards that would be put into place if the mine were built. The head of the PLP released a statement saying, “The steps taken by the EPA to date have gone well outside of its normal practice, have been biased throughout, and have been unduly influenced by environmental advocacy organizations.”