Alaska's Bristol Bay world-famous salmon rivers threatened by Pebble Mine.
By Eric Rickstad, editor of The Orvis News
Let's take a look the proposed Pebble Mine and its possible impact on the region’s fish and wildlife, culture, and economy. In this first part, we take a look at the proposed site for Pebble Mine, what it will look like in if the mine proceeds, the possible environmental impact, and what you can do to help.
It seems every day we’re faced with yet another river that needs our help to restore it from the degradation it’s suffered from dams, mines, poorly planned development, bad cattle grazing practices, and more. Each of these waters is deserving of our attention, money, and efforts. But what if we had the chance to help save a river from ever facing such degradation? And not just any river, but many famous rivers in a world-renowned watershed and ecosystem? That’s the opportunity at hand today.
What's at stake?
Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed is home to the largest wild salmon run and trophy rainbow trout population in the world. If you’ve seen photos of Alaskan brown bears feasting on wild Alaska salmon, you’ve seen images of Bristol Bay.
Three of Bristol Bay’s eight major rivers, The Kvichak (Kwee-Jack), Naknek, and Nushagek, collectively support the greatest wild salmon fishery in the world. The Nushagak River alone hosts the world’s largest king salmon run, while the Kvichak is home to the world’s single largest sockeye salmon producing fishery. Dr. Carol Ann Woody, Fisheries Scientist, Anchorage, AK, states that the Kvichak “has produced up to 60 million fish returning from a single spawning event.’’ It also supports king, pink, and silver salmon, trophy rainbow trout over 30”, grayling, dolly varden, and arctic char. But it’s the sockeyes that are at the center of the ecosystem. Their eggs and their flesh, once the salmon die after spawning, feed everything in the system, from invertebrates and bears, to eagles, wolves, beluga and killer whales. A negative impact on the sockeye population could result in the collapse of the ecosystem.
Pebble Mine: not just any mine, not just any place
Pebble Mine is not just a mine. It is to be the world’s largest open pit mine, situated immediately up-gradient of this renowned, salmon fishery that bolsters a $300 million economy on its renewable resource, and has been the livelihood and lifeblood of thousands of native Alaskans for centuries, and still is today.
According to Tim Bristol, Director, Trout Unlimited, Alaska, “What’s left of the Pacific north rim as far as salmon habitat goes, this [Bristol Bay] is the epicenter, the best of the best.” The mine, backed by Northern Dynasty Mineral Ltd. (NDM) a Canadian company that's never operated a mine, is to be sited on Alaska state land. According to a report by Dr. Carol Woody, “Pebble Mine would be a large scale copper-gold-molybdenum mine with characteristics similar to other mines that increased copper and other pollutants harmful to fish in surrounding waters. The proposed site has sulfide rock that when exposed to air and water creates acid that can increase copper and other harmful pollutants concentrations downstream... rain can also mobilize and wash copper and other pollutants into salmon habitat. Copper in small amounts can be lethal and have sub-lethal effects that increases mortality rates and decrease survival and production. Salmon and their food sources have a very low tolerance for this pollutant [copper].’’
The report also states that even trace amounts of copper can impair a salmon’s sense of smell to locate spawning grounds, prey, kin, and mates. Such confusion can be fatal.
The open pit itself is projected at 1,500 feet deep and two miles wide with an overall “footprint” of 15 square miles. A 150-mile road would be built. Two toxic tailing lakes would be required, one projected at 6.5 square miles, the other 3.6 square miles. The toxic tailing lakes would be hundreds of feet deep and contained by earthen dams. At 4.3 miles long and 740 feet high, the earthen dam for lake #1 would be the largest dam in the world, dwarfing (at 3 times the size) the world’s current largest dam—China’s “Three Gorges”—as well as The Hoover and Grand Coulee dam, all of which are concrete dams. While NDM states it will use a layer of water on top of the tailing lakes to help limit available oxygen (thus the amount of acid and metals created) these earthen dams would be sited in a seismically active region with volatile weather patterns, extreme flooding events, severe winters, and high winds. The dams would also need to contain the tailings (projected at 8 billion tons) and would need permanent maintenance, not just for decades, but forever, long after NDM is gone.
The Site, on the ground
For months, I’d heard about the Pebble Mine’s proposal. But, it’s one thing to hear about it and another to experience it. So this June I took a week-long trip to find out just what’s at stake.
My first day, Brian Kraft flew me and my Orvis colleague Tom Evenson into the site. Besides being a bush pilot, Brian is owner of Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge on the Kvichack River, Trout Unlimited Southwest Alaska/Bristol Bay Program Director, founder of Sporstman’s Alliance for Alaska, and a leading voice in raising awareness of the mine.
As we flew over Lake Illiama, (Alaska’s largest lake, situated just a few miles from the site) and the vast tundra wilderness at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, I marveled at the pristine landscape, the mountains whose melting snows filtered through tundra moss to feed creeks, rivers, and lakes so pure you can drink straight from them. Below were networks of caribou, moose, and brown bear trails worn in the tundra from generations of use. Who of us, I wondered, when we’ve fished our favorite remote waters have not imagined what it was like to experience the Pacific Northwest’s mighty Columbia, Maine’s Penobscot, and Canada’s legendary Atlantic salmon rivers before industry left them shadows of themselves; left runs of tens of millions of salmon and hundreds of thousands of steelhead, and other species depleted to a few thousand, or hundred, or none at all.
Flying over Upper Talarik Creek, the Koktuli River, and other tributaries and spawning grounds, I realized this was a place as unspoiled now as it was 200 years ago, some of the last untouched land in the world, and one of the very last watersheds left in North America with an ecosystem intact and unspoiled. A place where the largest river systems still flow freely, miraculously undammed, into the ocean, and still know the unbroken rhythm and cycle of nature that revolves around the return of 30-50+ million salmon a year.
Wastewater from Pebble Mine: Already Changing the Face of the Tundra
But as we came over the next ridge, there before us, in the roadless wilderness were the exploration drills for Northern Dynasty Minerals’ Pebble Mine. From base camps set up for gold and copper exploration, a half dozen helicopters buzzed in and out. From the drills’ holes, hoses gushed a gray slurry waste water onto the tundra, reducing the lush green, orange, and purple vegetation to a slimy black.
Brian pointed to the blackened tundra. “Pebble Mine states that their two-mile long and fifteen hundred-foot deep open pit and drawing two million gallons of water day from these headwaters won’t impact the water quality, salmon, or wildlife. But, look at what that tiny bit of wastewater is already doing. And that’s a drop in the ocean.”
Is Pebble Mine Safe? Mining Officials say "Yes", EPA says "No"
Brian, who’s operated his lodge for 12 years just a 20-minute bush plane flight down river was not at first against the mine. He’s a businessman after all, and thought if the mine could be done right, safely, it might work. “But,” he tells me, “as I started asking questions and looking into it, I knew it was a disaster.” Brian met the folks at Pebble Mine and asked them to show him an example of an open pit mine like the one proposed that operated in similar salmon and trout habitat without negatively impacting it. “They gave me examples of mines in deserts, not in watersheds. They couldn’t give me an example. Not one. So I did my own research. And I uncovered mine after mine after mine, all around the world, that failed to live up to its promise to have low or no impact on the water quality. I mean, I have stacks of reports as tall as me.” Brian’s statement is backed by scientific research.
A 2006 report by Kuipers and Maest, Comparison of Predicted and Actual Water Quality at Hardrock Mines studied, in detail, 25 mines and found that while 100% of mining companies predicted and made promises to local people and governments that they would meet compliance for water quality standards, 76% percent of those mines then failed to meet water quality compliance. And 89% percent failed to meet predictions of low acid drainage.
Similar predictions and promises are being made today regarding Pebble Mine. “The fish can exist right alongside the copper mine. There’s no question about that,” says Steve Borell, Director, Alaska Mining Association. “To say that this mine is going to destroy the fisheries. Uh uh. It will not be allowed to. I guarantee you it will not.”
NDM COO Bruce Jenkins stated in Red Gold (a documentary about the issue by Felt Soul Media; see page 16), “Problems with open pit mines are the exception, not the rule. And that’s a fact.” The EPA, however, states that: “Hard rock mining is the no.1 toxic polluting industry in the nation” and in 2004 reported the cost of cleaning up U.S. metal mines at $54 billion. And the U.S. Bureau of Mines states that mine wastes have polluted more than 10,000 miles of U.S. rivers and caused many fish kills, such as Montana’s famous Clark’s Fork. A recent cyanide spill from a gold mine in Guayana left dead fish and hogs drifting in that country’s largest river; and the Butte, MT site is the largest Superfund Site in the US.
Is the Bristol Bay Eco-system Fragile? Not According to Pebble Mine Officials...
When asked about the fragile balance of the world’s largest open pit mine at the headwaters of such a fragile ecosystem, Jenkins replied, “What do you mean by ‘fragile environment?’ There is a conventional wisdom that ecosystems are fragile. And conventional wisdom, in my experience, is typically conventional but not always wise.”
Sean Magee, Spokesperson for Pebble Partnership states that Pebble Mine has a “No Net Loss” policy. “Our project will not result in any diminishment of any fishery.” But then he backtracks and says, “If there are impacts that can’t be avoided, or managed, than we will seek to enhance the natural productivity of the rivers.”
Brian sets the plane down on a small lake that would be part of the larger toxic tailing lake if the mine goes through. He taxis us to shore. We jump out and Brian tethers the plane to a tree. We climb a nearby ridge and he sweeps his hand at a spectacular vista of lush valley of lakes and crystal clear tributaries and snow-capped mountains disrupted by a half dozen helicopters zipping in and out, and exploration drills pumping away, a miniature town made up of what look like giant greenhouses, set up as a base camp.
Negative Impacts from the Mine Already Showing
“This is an historic caribou calving ground,” Brian says. “But no one’s seen caribou calving here lately. I wonder why. Pebble Mine says they’ll have no impact, but they’ve already impacted what’s gone on here for thousands of years. That gray slurry water? They’re taking one hundred and fifty thousand gallons of water a day from the water table up here. And they want to take two million gallons a day when up and running. How can you take that much water a day from a watershed, spawning tributaries, and not impact it? It’s just not possible.”
Brian points the mountains. “Those mountains would be all but underwater in a toxic lake. And as soon as you start excavating and mining, you release minerals that, when undisturbed are of no harm. But when disturbed they meet with oxygen and water to turn toxic, they go into the groundwater, and you also effect the flow of that groundwater, all of it leading into these tributaries and spawning waters.” Just a few miles away, downstream on the Kvichack in front of the lodge, thirty thousand sockeye salmon swim by every hour, for weeks on end when they’re running. “And this water here goes into that river and the others.”
Brian stares off at the valley and mountains. We all stare off. There is a lot to stare at up here. It is hard to imagine such a pristine wilderness as this lost to the world’s largest open pit mine. But, I realize that with folks like Brian and others who do not wish for a place like this to go the way of the Pacific Northwest, the U.S. eastern seaboard, Butte, MT and places worldwide, anything can happen. Alaskans, such as Senior Senator Republican Ted Stevens, former Alaska governor Jay Hammond, and many others stand opposed to Pebble Mine, even as they understand the temporary economic boom it might bring the region and want Alaska to prosper. It’s just to high a risk to the state’s most valuable of renewable and sustainable resources. Senator Stevens has stated, “I just don’t like it” and vowed to stall it. Former Governor Hammond told The Washington Post: “I can’t imagine a worse location for a mine of this type, unless it was in my kitchen.”
I ask Brian how it can be stopped. He tells me there’s a Ballot Measure #4 up for vote August 26 (the outcome to be reported in the next issue of The Orvis News) called the Clean Water Initiative. This ballot asks for a ban on the withdrawl of water or discharge into any water that make up salmon habitat. At recent gatherings, former mining executive Bruce Switzer has spoken on behalf of a group in support of the initiative: Alaskans for Clean Water. Switzer and proponents state that the initiative is about Pebble Mine and its location and won’t effect the mining industry as whole or existing mines. “Pebble Mine is a disaster waiting to happen, the only question is when,’’ Switzer said. ‘‘It’s not about mining generally. It’s about the Pebble Project, and the only way we could deal with that was through an initiative.” He also stated Bristol Bay is just too special to risk.
Contact Elected Officials about Your Thoughts on Pebble Mine
Letting Governor Palin and Senators Stevens and Murkowski know your concerns will go along way to help. Pebble Mine is right now in the process of trying to get more permits to make the mining possible. It is a matter of months, not years, and time is short.
Lena Brommelan, Pebble Mine Project Manager and geologist, made it clear that social and environmental concern can stop the process. “They [mines] don’t all work out. And they may not work out because one of the three legs of the stool isn’t appropriate... the technical side (the engineering and the geological components) the environmental side, or alternatively, the social side.’’
World-wide Impact from Bristol Bay
This is not just an Alaska state issue. It is a world issue. The salmon from Bristol Bay is sent around the world, and the region is the last place on earth with such a wild salmon fishery, and NDM itself is a foreign company.
‘‘It’s not over,” Brian says. “We just need to get enough people aware and enough people to speak up and speak out.’’
But they need to do it now. Today. The timing is that critical. You can contact the governor of Alaska and Senator Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski quickly and easily with the information below to let them know your stance on Pebble Mine.
Before we head back down the
ridge to the plane, Brian asks if
I’ll take his picture with the site
behind him. “It’s not about being
anti-mining. It’s about this place.
It’s just the wrong place. There is
no other place on earth left like this.
We’ve ruined them all. We can’t
do nothing. We can’t sit by and say
that we can’t help. I have to be able
to tell my daughter Amber twenty
Update: EPA Assessment of Impact on Bristol Bay
The EPA plans to assess the Bristol Bay watershed to understand how future large-scale development may affect water quality and Bristol Bay's salmon fishery. This is a pivotal step toward protecting this pristine region from the proposed Pebble Mine. Part of the EPA's process is to get public input. We encourage you to send your input today to let the EPA know the value you place on the wild resources of this magnificent region.