Giant Strip Mine Threatens Alaska's Iconic Bristol Bay
Pick the worst place on the planet for a giant strip mine, in the heart of America's wildest and most productive ecosystem. That's exactly where one is planned.
But this grand energy flow may soon be short-circuited. Since 2007 the Pebble Limited Partnership--a coupling of London-based Anglo American and Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty--has sought to strip-mine the Pebble Deposit, constructing an open pit, tailings impoundments, and associated disruptions that eventually could cover 186 square miles, an area 20 times the size of all existing Alaska mines combined. The pit, larger by far than any other in North America, would be a mile deep (about the depth of the Grand Canyon) and two to three miles wide. The mine would use three times more water than Anchorage and almost as much electricity.
The first impoundment would be created by the biggest dam ever constructed--an artificial mountain wedged between two real ones. That impoundment and others, built as mining progressed with dams dwarfing Grand Coulee, would hold back 10 billion tons of sulfide waste--a witch's brew of sulfuric acid, mercury, arsenic, lead, zinc, cadmium, and other poisons. There's no half-life for sulfide waste, so it would have to be contained forever.
Pebble guarantees that it can effect this miracle, but little of its mountain of data is useful, or even decipherable. For example, spokespeople for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game report that Pebble documents are "virtually impossible to review" and that meetings with Pebble are "a waste of our time." Bob Waldrop, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, says: "We've been waiting to get information from Pebble for years. Finally they coughed up 20,000 pages of material--most unintelligible, the rest a regurgitation of what's in the literature." National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries biologists have complained to the EPA that they repeatedly get "ignored" when they ask Pebble for information.
Pebble's tailing ponds would be unlined, and the earth around the deposit is so porous there's a free exchange of groundwater between multiple river systems. As if this weren't enough, the deposit lies within the Pacific Ring of Fire, a volatile seismic zone beset by earthquakes. According to research cited by the EPA, a tailings dam fails somewhere on the planet every seven months.
At risk, warns Audubon Alaska's executive director, Nils Warnock, are 27 globally Important Bird Areas vital to such species as king eiders, Steller's eiders, Pacific brant, emperor geese, black-legged kittiwakes, horned puffins, common murres, rock sandpipers, dunlins, and marbled godwits.
Within the area influenced by Bristol Bay's watershed and threatened by the mine are: two national parks; four national wildlife refuges, including Izembek; a national monument; a state park; eight state-protected areas; five critical-habitat areas; two game refuges; a state wildlife sanctuary; three federal Steller's eider critical habitat units; two Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network sites; and at least eight other sites of equal importance to shorebirds.
Nearly every emperor goose on earth uses the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in spring. Close to the entire Pacific brant population uses the Izembek Lagoon area in spring and fall. And about 25,000 of the western population of black scoters breed in the Bristol Bay lowlands.
"Pebble Mine would be a ticking time bomb for Alaska's globally important salmon and waterbird populations," says Warnock. "It would be like living in a house with a huge toxic acid pool as its roof. It is not worth the risk."
But Shively pooh-poohs such talk. Storing 10 billion tons of toxic waste forever won't be a problem, he avers, because it's merely "an engineering issue."
I don't share his faith in engineers, having witnessed too many of their spectacular failures--"flood control" on the Mississippi, for example, coal-sludge "containment" in the Appalachians, coal-ash "containment" in Montana, "fish-passage" on the Columbia River system, oil extraction in the Gulf of Mexico, and water "management" in the Everglades.
Nor is Shively's faith in engineers shared by Bristol Bay residents. I asked Waldrop if the commercial fishermen he represents are worried. "Not worried," he replied. "Scared to death. There's no way Pebble can contain its effluvia in perpetuity. Bristol Bay people are said to be impoverished, but they don't feel impoverished. You can't pay a mortgage with a dead moose, but you can sure live well on it. And we underplay ongoing commercial activities. Just the salmon provide 9,600 full-time jobs."
Pebble claims that when the mine is operational it will employ 1,000.
Many of Alaska's elected officials were propelled to office by the mining industry. The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), basically a development agency, has rarely if ever denied a major mine permit. Mining companies applying for major projects in Alaska are required to pay the salaries and overhead costs of the DNR employees who process their permits.
So I wasn't surprised to hear this from a commercial fisherman named Joseph Chythlook, a Yup'ik of the Aleknagik tribe who chairs the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the region's largest private landowner: "The state seems in development mode. They think most of the noise is coming from outside environmentalists. They listen to a small minority of folks. I don't think we're being heard."
The only hope of area residents was the EPA, which under the Clean Water Act has authority to nix the mine. Chythlook's corporation and nine federally recognized tribes asked it to assess how a giant strip mine would affect salmon.