Even when a mine is well run, it is unavoidable that chemical contaminants will be released into the nearby environment
Imagine a pristine Alaskan wilderness with the most productive Sockeye salmon rivers in the world, teeming with millions of native fish pushing up river to spawn.
Now imagine a two mile wide and 2,000 foot deep open pit gold and copper mine at their headwaters.
As Jay Hammond, former Governor of Alaska said, ‘I can't imagine a worse location for a mine of this type, unless it were in my kitchen.'
The proposed mine site is located on an expanse of remote Alaska consisting of rolling hills, broad stretches of tundra and numerous creeks and streams.
More precisely, the site is upstream of the largest commercial sockeye salmon fishery in the world, at the headwaters of the Kvichak and the Nushagak Rivers in Bristol Bay - the two largest remaining sockeye salmon runs on the planet.
The mine proposal, known as Pebble, is the project of London-based mining giant Anglo American PLC and Northern Dynasty Minerals of Canada, together forming the Pebble Partnership.
The Partnership is hoping to extract what may prove to be the richest deposit of gold and copper in the world - an estimated 72 billion pounds of copper and 94 million ounces of gold. They also hope to excavate 4.8 billion pounds of molybdenum, along with smaller yields of silver, palladium and rhenium.
Although the project is still in the pre-feasibility and pre-permitting stage of development (the Partnership has not yet filed for specific federal or state mining permits) they hold a lease on about 153 square miles. Mining operations, once begun, could cover more than 30 square miles and continue for a century or more.
Understandably local fishermen are worried.
A pristine wilderness
Bristol Bay is a place where wildlife thrives. The Sockeye, distinguished by their bright red colour, are prolific, thanks to the abundance of pristine and undeveloped freshwater lakes, which are ideal spawning and rearing grounds. Every year millions upon millions of fish surge upriver to spawn.
Many other fish species thrive in Bristol Bay's rivers and streams, including four other species of wild salmon, rainbow trout, arctic char, arctic grayling, and dolly varden.
And, thanks to the millions of salmon migrating back to the streams, rivers, and lakes the region can support a diverse range of life. Bristol Bay is home to large populations of bald eagles, moose, seals and walruses, grizzly bears and black bears, beavers, wolverines, porcupines, river otters, beluga and killer whales, foxes, caribou - including one of Alaska's largest herds, wolves, waterfowl, and migratory birds.
Globally, wild salmon fisheries are in drastic decline. Yet the Bristol Bay watershed, with its intact rivers and undeveloped landscape, still supports a thriving, wild fishery.
The salmon spawning grounds have fed countless generations of Alaskan Natives and today also support a healthy sustainable fishing industry that is critical to the statewide economy.
Bristol Bay produces one-third of the world's sockeye salmon. The harvest and processing of Bristol Bay fish generates nearly $320 million a year and provides jobs for some 12,500 people.
A safe open pit mine?
The proposed Pebble project would include both a massive open pit and underground mine, consuming a minimum of 28 square miles of state land.
The ‘tailings' (waste rubble and fluids left behind which would represent about 99 per cent of the raw tonnage) would require two giant ‘tailings' lakes enclosed by four earthen dams, the largest measuring 4.3 miles long and 740 feet high. The tailings lakes would bury two valleys.
A massive power plant and approximately 100 miles of road would be built to Pebble, the roads crossing numerous salmon bearing streams, running the risk of impeding fish migration.
On top of this is the need for vast quantities of water. In 2006, Northern Dynasty Mines Inc. applied for Alaska water rights anticipating use levels of some 35 billion gallons a year (more than the annual consumption of Anchorage, Alaska's largest city) drained from the South and North forks of the Koktuli, and from the Upper Talarik Creek, effectively obliterating salmon habitat.
Then there's the issue of pollution. What will the impact be on the water quality of the surrounding surface and ground waters? Active metal-mine operations routinely release chemicals into the surrounding environment from two general sources - the natural, mineralized rock, and the massive quantities of chemicals that are added and utilized throughout the mining and mineral processing activities.
The Pebble Partnership stress on their website that they are committed to developing the Pebble Project 'in a socially and environmentally responsible manner.'
In the 2008 documentary film Red Gold (information below), which gives both fishermen and mine officials a chance to argue their case, Bruce Jenkins, COO Northern Dynasty Minerals says:
‘It’s premature for any reasonable person to formulate an opinion on whether or not this project's benefits outweigh the risks.' He goes on to say, 'Let us finish investing our hundreds of millions of dollars in studies and project design, present that empirical data to the agencies and to the public and the stakeholders and let the data speak for itself.’
In the meantime, there are those doing their own research. A 2007 report by hydrogeologist and geochemist Dr. Robert Moran ‘Pebble Mine: Hydrogeology and Geochemistry Issues' is 'intended to express viewpoints and perspectives that are not discussed, or are inadequately discussed by the Northern Dynasty Mines, Inc. (NDM).' The report addresses more than a dozen environmental issues and concludes that significant impacts to some of the world's most important fisheries are likely:
‘Even when a mine is well run, it is unavoidable that chemical contaminants will be released into the nearby environment,' writes Moran. 'I know of no comparable, large-scale copper-molybdenum-gold ore body that has been mined without release of significant concentrations of contaminants into the nearby surface and or ground waters, over the long-term.'
Salmon and sensitivity
I asked Dr. Carol Ann Woody, a fisheries scientist based in Anchorage, Alaska who has published more than 25 scientific papers on sockeye salmon, what risks the mine pose. She has the following concerns:
• The ore (mineralized rock containing high mineral content) lies directly under salmon habitat. There are many salmon streams and as yet unsurveyed streams within and all around the Pebble Partnership claim (see the map below)
• Data from the Pebble Partnership show the ore to be mostly acid generating therefore there is a high risk for development of acid mine drainage (AMD) over the long term - it can take years to develop. Once it starts it is impossible to stop. AMD can mobilize heavy metals in the ore (such as copper, zinc, cadmium) that are toxic to fish and carry them into ground and surface waters. If groundwater gets contaminated with heavy metals cleaning it up will be difficult if not impossible.
• Slight increases (2-20 parts per billion) above natural levels in Copper can affect a fishes' ability to smell which affects a salmon's ability to find spawning areas, identify predators, prey, kin or mates. Zinc is also toxic to fish as are many of the other minerals in this ore body.
• Immense dams will be needed to contain toxic waste onsite into perpetuity. Perpetual storage of toxic waste onsite is troubling. Fault lines in the region are not well defined and it is in a seismically active region prone to frequent earthquakes.
• Recent studies indicate that this type of mine - a high sulfer mine in an area with abundant ground and surface water - presents the highest risk for water contamination.
The Pebble Partnership state on their website that 'it's not yet known how Pebble might affect fish and fish habitat in the project area. The process of selecting a proposed mine plan is part of the ongoing prefeasibility study, with a primary goal of avoiding and minimizing effects on fish and fish habitat. Any effects that ultimately cannot be avoided will be mitigated to ensure that productive fish habitat in the project area is maintained.'
However, for many the risks are too high.
The threat to the Bristol Bay fishery has generated an unusual and diverse array of allies, including Alaska's subsistence, commercial and sport fishing interests, the Alaska Intertribal Council (a consortium of 231 Alaska Tribes), numerous conservation groups and well known jewellers, such as Tiffany & Co.
In April this year a delegation of Alaska Native leaders from Bristol Bay flew to London to confront Anglo-American executives and shareholders face-to-face and to attend the UK premiere of the documentary film Red Gold.
There I met Alaskan Native Lydia Olympic, a Yupik/Sugpiaq from the Village of Igiugig, a small and remote village located in southwestern Alaska. Her words said it all.
‘This land of bounty has provided for our families, our culture and our traditional way of life for tens of thousands of years,' Lydia said. ‘We need our lands and waters to stay pristine. We will still be here long after the mining companies have left.'
Find out more
Watch it on film: Red Gold
Produced by Felt Soul Media and Trout Unlimited Alaska
Red Gold is an award-winning documentary film that captures the voices and stories of Bristol Bay, its people, and fisheries. Filmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel spent 70 days in Bristol Bay documenting the growing unrest among native, commercial and sport fishermen who oppose the proposed mine as well as giving mine officials a chance to argue their case. www.redgoldfilm.com
Laura Sevier is the Ecologist’s Green Living Editor.