08 Sep 2008

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.
By bill sherwonit

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.

Enlarge image
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.

Enlarge image
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.

Enlarge image
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?


A resident of Anchorage since 1982, nature writer Bill Sherwonit has contributed essays and articles to a wide variety of publications. He is also the author of 11 books about Alaska. His most recent is Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey, published in 2008 by the University of Alaska Press. His Web site is

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This information needs to be heard by all Americans.
The American people and the native people of Alaska must know the choices being made by public officials and be able to protest those choices, especially with something as important as Salmon, which support the native people. This beautiful land must also be protected from the toxins and destruction of mining......
I do not support the choice to mine. My voice could not be heard without Yale Environment 360 informing the people. Thank You!
Posted by Heather Woodruff Perry on 09 Sep 2008

Measure 4 wouldn't have eliminated the option to mine the deposit. It would have limited the polution permitted on the headwaters of the mine. This initiative would have costed a lot of money to the developers, but by looking at the size and reserves of this deposit, I am sure that Anlgo American and Rio Tinto could pay to operate in a cleaner way. It is a shame that Ms Palin got involved to save money to these big companies, but this is the way of the republicans I guess
Posted by Sergio Rivera on 10 Sep 2008

Fish versus gold? How about Fish and gold, its worked well in Alaska for over a century.
Posted by Ray on 11 Sep 2008

Even if the mine causes the collapse of the
fishery, I'm sure Rio Tinto et al will just throw a
small bone to Alaskan residents so they'll stand
at bat for their efforts. In turn, when something
goes terribly wrong with the fishery, Alaskan
residents will just cry down to the lower 48 for
more welfare-like subsidies.

The two voices of Alaskans:
"We're self-sufficient, give us autonomy, down
with big government..."

"Something went wrong, give us roughly twenty
times the federal dollars we contribute in taxes
because we're incapable of bailing ourselves

Posted by Rosco P Coltrane on 12 Sep 2008


If Rio Tinto et al dumps anything into that drainage they will be sued for all they own. They know this and if they are like the local mines they will treat the fish and wildlife like treasures.

Proir to the Alaska pipe line being built some forcasted the demise of wildlife, which have since florished. I expect that will be the case for Bristol Bays salmon too. The mine will make an effort to be sure that happens.

Over fishing has had a bigger impact on fish than anything mines have ever done.
Posted by Ray on 12 Sep 2008

After all, a deposit this big doesn't get mined in a couple of years. So, these companies would be very interested in keeping their nose clean for many, many years.
Posted by Sergio Rivera on 12 Sep 2008

Wrong wrong Mr. Rivera, when it comes to
salmon, habitat destruction by whatever means
is the greatest threat to salmon. In the Pacific
NW, its included logging, urban and suburban
development, hydroelectric dams, even
agriculture that have trashed salmon streams to
assure recovery is limited or impossible.
Granted overfishing has been a contributor as
well but that is NOT a problem with most of
Alaska's fisheries where all harvests
(commercial, subsistence, and sport) are very
strictly regulated. But this mine and associated
development is likely to severely threaten
salmon habitat in two huge and highly
productive salmon watershed. Oh, and I live in
the Nushagak drainage and cherish the salmon I
catch each year.

Ray, As far as salmon and gold co-exsisting for
centuries I believe you are seriously mistaken.
Early placer developments (panning, various
methods of dredging) massively destroyed large
portions of salmon spawning areas by digging it
up, and or silting it up. Its only been since the
1970's when the State of Alaska began requiring
miners to use settling ponds or other discharge
water treatment that fish habitat began getting
some measure of protection. I should note that
quite a bit of placer gold mining may have
occurred where little or no salmon existed to
start with but on the Kenai Peninsula, parts of
the Kuskokwim, Goodnews, tributaries of the
Yukon, were salmon habitat. Some has never
recovered while recovery progresses slowly at
other (is Salmon River near Platinum ).
Posted by Dan D on 13 Sep 2008

This is terrible news for the environment; and if McCain/Palin get into the Whitehouse I think we all know we'll get to read a lot more bad news like this...
Posted by Fair Trade on 14 Sep 2008

Fair trade? cool, lets have an honest cost of goods without political ideology

Posted by on 14 Sep 2008

This is a very well written piece. Thank you Bill for illuminating many of the nuanced misconceptions around ballot measure 4 and the proposed pebble mine. I would like also to respond briefly to Ray's comment from 9/11 "how about fish and gold, its worked well in Alaska for over a century." I am amazed that he is comfortable tossing this simple and sarcastic comment into the discourse after reading Bill's article. Ray, did you read the entire thing? The proposed pebble mine would be a very unique project. Its location is distinctive- the size of the salmon runs in the rivers that feed into Bristol Bay as well as the methods and scale to be used in development of the mine would be unprecedented in Alaska's history. The tailings pond that is proposed to contain waste from this open pit mine would be the largest of its kind ever constructed. Ray, you should do some research on the history of mining in Alaska before you make irresponsible claims about the successes or downfalls of the methods used historically vs. those proposed in the specific project at hand.
Posted by Jessica on 16 Sep 2008

Jessica, I have a cabin near Bristol Bay (Alegnigik) and live midst huge modern and very responsible Nevada gold mines, I do not work for them. I have taken a 18 ft lund skiff (50 hp honda kicker) to the head waters of the nushigak. I love fishing.


It just seems silly to condemn any industry that we all need. As a nation we are currently suffering the political lack of oil, Ok, down the road with your attitude we will suffer the lack of other natural this what you want?

Can we not say "hey you bet, but hurt those fish and you are toast" instead of attempting to stop the project at all cost?

no time for spell check...sorry.
Posted by Ray on 16 Sep 2008

Ray, even with a spell check your views come off
as self-righteous and short-sighted. Most Alaskans
tout their "independence," but in reality, without oil
subsidy (which per capita, is less than what the
feds already subsidize the same companies with)
you'd all need more federal tax dollars than you're
already receiving. Without extractive industries,
you're nothing; with them you're loud-mouthed
hypocrites, constantly calling for decreasing
regulations and increasing subsidy.

If the world was really a 'free market' you'd all be
Posted by Them Duke Boys on 21 Sep 2008

Thanks for your comment Duke Boys but care to address the points I have tried to make?
Posted by Ray on 24 Sep 2008

The only question I must ask is if we don't get our resources from our own land where there is some glimmer of a hope that we can extract them without harming the environment, where else are we going to get them? Our consumption far outweighs anything we can extract so we must then gather our resources from countries that undoubtedly have less stringent environment regulations. Yes, Pebble does pose a threat toward Bristol Bay, but with so much attention drawn towards this proposed mine isn't that all the more reason to believe that they will do everything possible to prevent an environment disaster similar to Papua New Guinea or Peru?
Posted by Emery Garcia on 12 Nov 2008

I am an Alaskan. I fish and hunt. I have spent years following the wildlife as a photographer (35 years now) and truth be known, the caribou have no problems with the oil pipeline. The fish have no problems with the mining concerns since the State of Alaska made mining concerns clean up their act. Mining is very clean now. I spend a lot of time in the Lake Clark area every year and the only issues that are there at this time is the heavy helicopter traffic working around the Pebble Mine area. These people are going well beyond what is currently mandated to make sure from the start that their purposed operation is going to be not only clean, but an example for others to follow. Our Gov. Palin has worked to place more pressure on Pebble than would be expected to assure all of the fishermen that make their livings that it will be clean. If you don't come up and spend time, with an open mind, you will never know the truth.
Posted by Jim Hill on 08 Dec 2008

Thanks for your article Bill, and also the commentators. There is more to the story than "fish versus gold."

While people should gather the various environmental science perspectives on geochemistry, fish habitats, seismology, etc. we should also keep a critical eye on HOW the Pebble Partnerships REPORTS to various segments of society. Let's remember that Bristol Bay Native Corporation remains neutral on the proposition, and their unique political ideology will be central to any decision reached with the Division of Natural Resources. Pebble is unique, is a large prospect, and will have impacts on the environment.

What risks are there to the sustainability of the region? What opportunities to the development of the people? I support an independent science panel to advise the further collection of data during the pre-feasibility study before permits are applied for, but I would also recommend Native/local executive chairing of the board. After all, it will not be the Bob Gillam's or Brian Kraft's (lodgeowners and sport fishermen) who will be impacted the greatest.

It will be the Bristol Bay and Native Alaskan fisherman and subsistence users who will sink or swim with Pebble. Pebble Mine is not an Alaskan battle between conservationists and developers, between the "greenies" and the "greedy", but an important, difficult negotiation between people with very different histories, cultures, and understandings of the world. Listen! and purchase only wild salmon!
Posted by Dylan McFarlane on 21 Apr 2009

If there is any doubt in anyone's mind about the destructive power of mines, gold copper, silver coal, etc., take a long ride through the lower states and see what havoc they have laid on the formerly productive streams there. The Pebble mine will be no exception. It takes about 15 years after shutdown for the long-term damage to begin, although damage in the shorter term may begin at any time. This is a Canadian company, owned by British interests, and if you think they care about the eventual damage, you also believe in the tooth fairy. The profits will go to the owners, the higher paying jobs to experts from Canada and England and Alaska will get the severance tax, the low paying jobs and the shaft. The natives will have nothing to which to turn for subsistence, since all the wildlife in the area is dependent on the salmon runs, which are dependent on clean water.
The only possible savior which I see is the Federal government. With the current administration and its view on environment issues, we may be in luck and we will need a lot of it.

Posted by tahjr on 23 Jun 2009

Thank you very much for the well written article. I just graduated with an environmental studies degree and studied mines and mining issues for my senior thesis, because I grew up in Bristol Bay and wanted to get an independent look. What I generally found is that with mines (even modern ones) that compliance on environmental laws and regulations is a big issue. Many mines have said they will not affect the water quality and/or the health of fish and their populations, but a large portion of them have. I hope Alaska and the nation will see that we have a rich fishery left, which is rare around the world, and will work to protect it. When you protect Bristol Bay, you are protecting one of the world's last great healthiest sustainable fisheries that many people eat from and get a living off of. And you are protecting the Native subsistence way of life for thousands of more years.
Posted by Verner Wilson III on 20 Oct 2009

I have come to the conclusion that the only way to capture the public's attention about an issue is to turn it into a movie, or perhaps a book. Then a movie. "Fiction" seems to be able to motivate. So I have written a novel, a thriller, about a cyanide heap leach mine, corruption, fraud, and disaster. The title is THE MINE. Creative, huh? You might conclude that this comment is simply self-promotion, and to an extent, you would be correct. However, when the book is purchased from the referenced site, the vast majority of the proceeds benefit the Sierra Club directly. I live in Oregon, so for now, the Oregon Chapter receives the donation. My goals are simple: bring true mining reform, and, yes, promote the book. See Fiction sells better than fact, sadly.

Posted by Dan Cobb on 11 Nov 2009

Supporters say an initiative like Measure 4 is necessary because they have fewer tools to fight Pebble Mine since the proposed site is on state land, not federal. They say state officials, however concerned they may be about fisheries and environmental health, are essentially in the business of granting permits, not denying them. The lack of a federal role, they say, has kept Pebble Mine at a lower profile than debates over drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or logging in the Tongass National Forest.

Posted by Relogio de Ponto on 15 Dec 2009

Something dont sound right to me. Too many red flags. Use your heads people. This can't happen if you want to keep the way of life that's consistant with nature and humanity.

Don't screw up the good thing you people have strived to keep for so long.

Posted by steven alan rolfe on 24 Apr 2011



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