Worst place for a major mine?

  • The Agulowok River, one of a network of crucial waterways for salmon that make up the Bristol Bay ecosystem, which could be threatened by nearby mining development including the Pebble Mine.

    Jonny Armstrong

Backers of Alaska's colossal Pebble Mine, including Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, have predicted tremendous economic benefits from developing what would be the continent's largest open-pit mine (see map at lower left). But the actual economic forecast is not that clear, and recent events might force a recasting, or even the abandonment, of the scheme.

An estimated $300 billion of copper, gold and molybdenum lies beneath the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers, and extracting it could create roughly 10,365 jobs in Alaska, plus more in the Lower 48, say mine supporters. But because the Bristol Bay region is also home to some of the world's richest salmon habitat, local commercial fishermen, Native tribes and conservationists fear that the mine could harm fish populations, affecting 11,500 fishing jobs and the diets of subsistence communities.

Copper and gold prices have declined, however, even as political opposition to the mine has risen. Britain-based Anglo-American, the giant mining company that helped form the Pebble Limited Partnership in 2007, withdrew last September, absorbing $541 million in losses. The other key company, Canadian-based Northern Dynasty, suffered a 38 percent drop in its stock price following the announcement. In order to recruit another partner and make it past the permitting process, the company might have to adopt a less risky plan.

Nine tribes have urged the federal Environmental Protection Agency to invoke a seldom-used veto power – authorized by Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act – to block the project. The EPA's three-year study of its potential impacts is nearing completion, and the latest draft, released last April, largely supports concerns that habitat loss and pollution could affect some of the 37.5 million sockeye salmon (46 percent of the world's total) that spawn in Bristol Bay rivers. The EPA notes that the mine could consume nearly a hundred miles of spawning streams and large wetlands while generating acid mine drainage and copper toxic to salmonids. Pebble's mining waste "would require management for centuries or even perpetuity."

Other mine proposals in western British Columbia and along Alaska's Chuitna River could also threaten salmon, and Gov. Parnell is pushing many pro-development measures, including a huge hydroelectric dam on the Susitna River that could interrupt runs there. He also supports a bill that would "streamline" state permitting for mines and other projects while making it harder for tribes and conservationists to protect salmon rivers. Meanwhile, Colorado School of Mines associate professor Ron Cohen recently told the Anchorage Daily News that "a very large mining operation between two major tributaries that run right down to probably the finest, best-managed fishery in the world ... is one of the last locations I would consider mining."


Note: This is a sidebar to a High Country News magazine cover story, "Ecosystems 101: Hard lessons from the mighty salmon runs of Alaska's Bristol Bay." An HCN infographic/map shows the location of the proposed Pebble Mine in the context of the nine major rivers flowing into Bristol Bay.

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Hard lessons from the mighty salmon runs of Bristol Bay
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