Alaska’s Pebble Mine: Fish Versus Gold

With the support of Gov. Sarah Palin, mining interests have defeated an Alaska ballot measure that could have blocked a huge proposed mining project. Now, plans are moving forward to exploit the massive gold and copper deposit at Bristol Bay, home of one of the world’s greatest salmon runs.

For thousands of years, Alaska’s Bristol Bay region has been home to one of the Earth’s most remarkable wildlife spectacles: Each summer, tens of millions of bright, silvery salmon return from ocean waters and pour into the bay, before separating into runs bound for several major river systems.

While salmon throughout much of North America have been wiped out or become endangered, Bristol Bay’s fecund waters continue to produce the planet’s richest wild salmon fishery. Nurtured by clean, nutrient-rich lands and waters, legions of fish are harvested — 32 million salmon in the bay last year alone — by commercial, subsistence, and sport fishers alike, producing annual revenues of more than $110 million.

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Aerial Image
© Bill Sherwonit
Beneath this Alaska basin lies an immense mineral deposit; beyond it, the world’s richest salmon fishery.
In recent years, however, another potential source of immense wealth has emerged around Bristol Bay. At the headwaters of two drainages that flow into the bay, beneath lands owned by the state of Alaska, a company named Northern Dynasty Minerals has discovered a gargantuan mineral deposit. The granitic rocks hidden beneath an otherwise ordinary upland basin and rounded foothills contain riches beyond anything ever discovered in North America — and possibly the world.

The find is known as Pebble Mine, and, with its full extent yet to be determined, officials estimate that it contains 67 billion pounds of extractable copper, 82 million ounces of gold, and 4 billion pounds of molybdenum. At current prices, the mine’s metals are worth $345 billion to $500 billion. That makes the Pebble Mine the second-largest deposit of its kind ever found, only slightly behind Indonesia’s Grasberg Mine. Some suspect Pebble will become No. 1 once its full extent has been learned.

Now, with the defeat last month of an Alaska ballot measure that would have prohibited new mines from discharging pollutants that would harm humans or salmon, Northern Dynasty and its partners are continuing with efforts to assess the size of these deposits. They have been greatly helped by Gov. Sarah Palin — the Republican candidate for vice president — who, despite a constitutional ban on state officials becoming involved in ballot initiatives, publicly expressed her “personal” opposition to the measure. Many say the popular governor’s stance was decisive. Before her comments, polls suggested that citizens supported the referendum. Afterward — and following the use of her picture in advertisements opposing the tough mining initiative — the measure was voted down on Aug. 26, with 57 percent against and 43 percent in favor.

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Drilling Rig
© Bill Sherwonit
A drilling crew takes core samples in the West Pebble area of the proposed open-pit mine.
Despite the setback of the ballot measure, which mining interests fought with an advertising and lobbying campaign costing nearly $8 million, large numbers of Alaskans are still raising questions: Can a vast industrial project — which might include a two-mile-wide open pit mine and a dam, hundreds of feet high and up to four miles long, to hold tailings and acid wastes — be constructed in a wild, seismically active zone without leading to an environmental catastrophe? And, ultimately, will the mining of this vast mineral wealth irreparably harm the natural wealth that defines Bristol Bay — its salmon?

Never has a large-scale industrial proposal ignited such widespread opposition in Alaska, which traditionally has enthusiastically welcomed development and mining ventures. But with such huge potential profits at stake, Northern Dynasty and its partners clearly are not going to back down, especially now that the ballot proposition, known as Measure 4, has been laid to rest.

In a pro-development state where the economy is largely sustained by resource extraction, you might have expected residents to embrace such a golden prospect. Initially they did, particularly in Bristol Bay, where the economic mainstay of commercial fishing crashed in the late 1990s and early 2000s because of below-average returns of wild salmon and the global boom in raising farmed Atlantic salmon. Locals figured a new world-class mine could be an economic windfall.

But as Bristol Bay residents began to learn more about Pebble and open-pit mining, attitudes shifted. Many became staunch opponents, fearing both the loss of traditional lifestyles and the potential for poisoned waters and fish.

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Cook Inlet
© Bill Sherwonit
Cook Inlet might get a new deepwater port, to ship ore from the Pebble mine.
The mine lies in an area of sweeping lowlands, gently rounded hills, and wetlands crossed by zigzagging creeks and dotted with innumerable, unnamed ponds and lakes. In summer, the mixed tundra-forest countryside is a deep, vibrant green, the waters darkly blue. This landscape, and the proposed Pebble project, are located at the core of Bristol Bay’s salmon and trout fisheries — the headwaters of the Koktuli River and Upper Talarik Creek, small clearwater streams that feed two major river drainages, the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers. “That’s the heart of our subsistence,” says Molly Chythlook, a Yup’ik Eskimo raised in the small village of Aleknagik and now a resident of the Dillingham, the region’s commercial hub. “I don’t know what could be worse than to have a mine in that place.”

Though five species of salmon are born and die in the Bristol Bay drainage, sockeye, in particular, pour into local rivers and creeks in fantastic numbers, turning streams crimson as they push their bodies — transformed from saltwater silver to bright red — toward ancestral spawning grounds. In 2008, the sockeye run alone is estimated at 40 million fish. Such abundance is helping the wild salmon fishery to rebound as consumers grow wary of farmed salmon.

“Salmon are the No. 1 source of life here,” explains Bobby Andrew, a Yup’ik elder and lifelong Bristol Bay resident. “They’re the most important source of food. But they also have great cultural and spiritual value to my people.”

In addition to salmon, Bristol Bay’s river-and-lake systems teem with trophy-class rainbow trout. These attract anglers from around the world and support a flourishing industry of sport-fishing guides, backcountry lodges, outfitters, and air charter operators.

After preliminary discoveries in the area by another company, Northern Dynasty acquired the mineral rights in 2001. Between 2002 and 2005, exploratory drilling revealed the presence of a huge porphyry sulfide deposit, now known as West Pebble. The three principal metals — copper, gold, and molybdenum — are disseminated as tiny grains through the more than 4.5 billion tons of rock, and the cheapest, most efficient way to extract them is by open-pit mining.

The initial Pebble Mine find touched off Alaska’s greatest gold-rush frenzy since statehood, and by 2005 companies had staked thousands of claims across hundreds of square miles. Then, in 2007, the company announced the discovery of a second, much richer, section of the ore body, known as East Pebble, which could be mined underground.

Pebble’s riches have lured two of the world’s hard-rock mining giants, both based in London: Rio Tinto and Anglo American. Together with Northern Dynasty, they have formed the joint venture now called the Pebble Partnership.

Critics are troubled by many things, not least of which is the size and nature of Pebble’s footprint. Besides the possibility of open-pit and underground operations, the mine would include a mill, an immense tailings pond, and a huge dam, built to hold several billion tons of waste. In all, Pebble would consume some 15 square miles of tundra, marshes, creeks, and lakes. Beyond the mine, a 100-mile road and pipeline would likely be constructed to get the ore to a port on Cook Inlet.

Northern Dynasty promises to develop the prospect without threatening Bristol Bay’s fisheries, but opponents remain skeptical. Because Pebble is in a seismically active area, many fear the dam could collapse in an earthquake, allowing toxins to spill downstream. But even if no catastrophes occur, they argue, a mine could contaminate groundwater that feeds Bristol Bay’s streams.

Above all, opponents argue that Alaskans shouldn’t gamble the health of Bristol Bay’s world-class fisheries for the sake of a mining operation that will benefit few locals or the state. Because of the tax system for hard-rock mining, state and local governments would receive limited revenues, with nearly all profits going to companies outside of Alaska.

Sean Magee, the Pebble Partnership’s director of public affairs, agrees that “there are plenty of examples of bad mining practices, especially in the American West.” But most occurred decades ago, when environmental standards weren’t as high, he says. “There are plenty of great examples of hard-rock mining that have safely co-existed with fisheries,” he says, “including three in Alaska.” He cites Northwest Alaska’s Red Dog Mine, the Interior region’s Fort Knox gold mine, and Southeast Alaska’s Greens Creek Mine — all excavated in the 1980s and 1990s — as operations that “actually improved water quality and fish populations downstream.”

Lauren Oakes, conservation programs officer with Trout Unlimited Alaska, replies that all three of those mines have “have had their problems.” Red Dog alone, she says, has had more than 100 EPA violations and been sued for contaminating local food resources. “I just don’t see the models of success that Mr. Magee is referencing,” says Oakes. “I see demonstrated pollution problems in Alaska and the Lower 48.”

While the toxic legacy of hard-rock mining troubles opponents, so does government’s failure to adequately police and prevent pollution.

Federal and state permitting processes have too often failed to protect the environment, argues Brian Kraft, a Bristol Bay lodge owner and Southwest Alaska project director with Trout Unlimited. He points to a 2006 study showing that regulators have consistently proved unable to predict — and therefore prevent — the pollution of surface water and groundwater by hard-rock mines.

“The problem,” says Kraft, “is that the state’s permitting system is vague and not very stringent. The existing statutes give the DNR [Alaska Department of Natural Resources] commissioner very wide latitude in deciding what’s permissible.”

The list of the mine’s opponents is long. It includes nearly a dozen Bristol Bay village or tribal councils, Alaska-based fishing groups, a seafood-processing association, the Alaska Wilderness Recreation & Tourism Association, the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., and a locally based land trust. Even U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, long a supporter of development interests in the state, has said he is “very disturbed” by the project.

Pebble’s advocates include several of the state’s politically influential resource-development groups, as well as the Lake and Peninsula Borough (which encompasses much of the Bristol Bay region) and some Native corporations. Unlike many village and tribal groups, Alaska’s Native corporations are largely pro-development and are supporting Pebble Mine because they view it as an economic windfall.

Pebble Mine opponents hoped to cripple the project with Measure 4, which would have strictly limited the pollutants that metal mines could discharge into streams and drinking water. But the mining interests’ massive advertising campaign successfully painted Measure 4 as an extreme initiative that threatened the state’s mining industry and its 5,500 jobs. In addition to speaking out against the measure and allowing her image to be used in mining industry advertisements, Gov. Palin also allowed her Department of Natural Resources to promote a “no” vote on its Web site. The Alaska Public Offices Commission later ordered the department to take down its statement of support. Palin’s critics said her involvement in the ballot measure was a misuse of her power and violated the spirit of the constitutional ban prohibiting state officials from getting involved in citizen initiatives.

Northern Dynasty is expected to unveil its mining plan next year. Measure 4 proponents have vowed to continue their effort to block the Pebble project, which still needs various state regulatory approvals.

The battle may soon be waged in the courts. Ultimately, for Alaskans, the issue will boil down to this: Do the benefits of tapping into one of the planet’s richest mineral lodes outweigh the risks to one of the world’s last, great fisheries?