Trillium News

Pebble Poses a Mountain-Sized Risk for Alaska Fishery

Bristol Bay - photo by Bob Waldrop
In October, as the first snow of autumn begins to fall near Alaska’s Bristol Bay, I found myself visiting with a group of locals. Among them was Robin Samuelsen, a Yupik Eskimo and board member of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. The conversation began light and jovial as he fondly recalled fishing adventures with his father and grandchild. Then his voice grew anxious: “I’ve never seen the people of Bristol Bay so scared. If there ever is a mining accident our people are finished. Our way of life will be gone.”
At issue is the controversial Pebble Mine Project, envisioned to be one of the world’s largest open pit copper and gold mines in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, already one of the world’s richest salmon fisheries. Commercial fishing is a $300 million a year industry in Bristol Bay, which produces half the global supply of wild sockeye salmon. An astonishing 30 million salmon spawn in its rivers, creeks and lakes each year, feeding humans, bears and birds. Local support for the mine is scant, given the deep cultural roots to salmon fishing. For generations the Yupik people, a majority in the region, have depended on wild salmon as a staple in subsistence diets.
Despite the fishing industry’s size, it financially pales to the $300 billion of gold and copper wealth buried in the Pebble deposit. The project backers, British mining company Anglo American and Canada’s Northern Dynasty, promote the economic benefits to community including roads, power plants, and about a thousand jobs for the duration of the mine’s life.
Contrary to developers’ assurances, developing Pebble would carry huge environmental risks. For example, 10 billion tons of toxic mining waste would sit behind earthen dams in the seismically active area. Catastrophic releases do happen. The Nature Conservancy found 147 cases since 1960 of disastrous dam failures of mining waste. One occurred in Hungary just last year.
Bristol Bay fishing fleet - photo by Bob WaldropEven more likely to emerge is the slow developing threat of drainage and leaching from sulfuric acid, cyanide, arsenic and cooper. Once in waterways, the contamination risks to salmon speak for themselves. Wayne Nastri, a former highly ranked EPA official, told us, “in my experience I don’t know of a major hard rock mine near a water body that hasn’t had significant leaching.”
For concerned environmental and indigenous rights advocates there is hope Pebble Mine can be halted. One promising avenue is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) authority under the Clean Water Act to protect Aquatic Resources of National Importance. The EPA has begun the process necessary to assess Bristol Bay’s “national importance” and mining’s potential impacts on the watershed.
At Trillium we strongly believe the Bristol Bay fishery is of national importance and is inappropriate for extensive hard rock mining. The Bay’s national importance extends to anyone who wishes to continue enjoying fish for dinner. Trillium is writing directly to the EPA, making inquiries at Goldman Sachs (due to our expectation that they will be approached to underwrite the project), and preparing for potential engagement with Anglo American should the need arise.
Ted Stevens, the late Republican senator from Alaska, may have said it best: “I am not opposed to mining, but [Pebble] is the wrong mine for the wrong place.”