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Fishing or Mining: Alaska’s Bristol Bay Region Debates Its Future

Fishing or Mining: Alaska’s Bristol Bay Region Debates Its Future

The controversial Pebble Mine project in Southwest Alaska pits a mining conglomerate against one of the world’s most iconic fisheries.

A drilling rig is shown at the site of the Pebble Mine Project in Alaska's Bristol Bay region. (Michael Conathan)
A drilling rig is shown at the site of the Pebble Mine Project in Alaska's Bristol Bay region. (Michael Conathan)

Last week, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy spent part of her tour of Alaska hearing local opinions on the proposed Pebble Mine project, an operation that a recent article in The Washington Post called “the biggest environmental decision facing Obama you’ve never heard of.”

While the planned gigantic open-pit mine in Southwest Alaska has been in the works for roughly a decade, many of the details pertaining to the Pebble Mine and its operation remain under wraps. What the developers—the Pebble Limited Partnership—have been very forthcoming about, however, is the richness of their discovery, which they claim is the largest untapped copper resource left on the planet. They believe it could produce as much as half a trillion dollars in revenue.

But the partnership has yet to release its final mine plan specifying precisely where it will dig and—perhaps of greater concern—where it will dump its waste. The company’s recalcitrance has drawn the ire of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who sent John Shively, the Pebble Partnership’s CEO, a letter earlier this summer criticizing his organization for inciting “anxiety, frustration, and confusion that have become the norm in many communities” by failing to provide details of its proposed operations.

Meanwhile, the few available specifics—which the Ocean and Public Lands teams at the Center for American Progress complied in a recent issue brief, “Mining in Alaska’s Bristol Bay Region Threatens a Sustainable Economy”—have polarized neighboring native villages and inspired a broad coalition of opponents, including commercial and recreational fishermen, Alaska natives, and conservationists. In addition, numerous jewelry companies, including Tiffany & Co., have pledged not to buy Pebble’s gold.

Last Tuesday, McCarthy held two public meetings in Alaskan municipalities with great interest in the proposed mine project. The first public hearing was in Dillingham, a small fishing hamlet of about 2,000 people situated where the Nushagak River meets Bristol Bay, about 150 miles as the crow flies from the Pebble claim. There, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, she heard a “unanimous” message of opposition to the mine. This is not surprising, since the town is wallpapered with posters and bumper stickers featuring a red-bordered white circle with the words “Pebble Mine” bisected by a red slash. The fear in Dillingham is that the mine’s development could scuttle the town’s famed salmon fishery, a sustainable economic engine supporting more than 10,000 jobs and creating $1.5 billion in annual economic output.

The second public meeting took place in Iliamna, an Alaska native village of fewer than 200 residents located 18 miles from the mine site, making it the second-closest town to the proposed development. The town of Nondalton is slightly closer, but Iliamna has become the Pebble Project’s base of operations. During tours of the mine site, the developers take great pains to emphasize efforts to minimize the impact of preliminary operations. These have included building drilling platforms for test wells instead of setting equipment directly on the tundra, as well as using helicopters to shuttle all of its equipment and personnel to the site rather than building roads from town for that purpose. They even hand out safety vests bearing the slogan “zero harm.”

Still, at the Iliamna meeting, local residents sang a mixed tune. Much of the praise for the company came from its employees and their families, while other villagers expressed concern for their communities’ futures. According to news service McClatchy, Nondalton Tribal Council President William Evanoff told McCarthy, “No amount of money or jobs can replace our way of life. The [mine’s] threats are real.”

Industrial development on the Pebble Partnership’s proposed scale would be a first for either of the two affected boroughs—the Bristol Bay Borough and the Lake and Peninsula Borough. It is also important to note that the Pebble Partnership is not the only operation with mining claims in the region. Theirs would likely be just the first shoe to drop—a shoe that would potentially leave a deep and damaging footprint.

The first thing one notices from the air over the Southwest Alaska tundra is that the region is massive and virtually untouched by human construction and habitation. The two boroughs combined encompass 15.5 million acres yet are home to just 2,628 people, according to 2010 Census data. That makes one person for every 5,900 acres. The biggest structures in existence outside the tiny villages are beaver dams.

One reaction to all this space is to assume a project even on the scale of the Pebble Project—an open-pit mine possibly miles in diameter and thousands of feet deep—would be unnoticeable in such a vast landscape. The trouble is that the waste generated in Iliamna’s backyard will not necessarily remain there. This is, of course, what irks and concerns the residents of Dillingham and the rest of the Bristol Bay region.

Luki Akelkok Sr., a member of the Yup’ik nation and traditional chief of the village of Ekwok, speaks for many who oppose the mine. A subsistence fisherman who catches salmon to help feed himself and his family, Akelkok told me that since the Pebble Partnership started drilling test holes, he has already seen a decline in salmon at his fishing camp, which is just down river from the mine site. “Since they started [testing] the fish haven’t been there.”

While Akelkok’s statement is strictly anecdotal, the effects of pollution on fisheries are well established. Bristol Bay fishermen need look no further than the waters of Alaska’s Prince William Sound, where, even more than 20 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the once-robust herring population collapsed and has yet to fully return.

Commercial fishermen are also concerned that the mere presence of the mine could reduce the value of their brand. Katherine Carscallen, who fishes commercially out of Dillingham, told me the image of Bristol Bay as a pristine, unsullied ecosystem is fundamental to the industry’s marketing strategy. Even absent a major accident, the presence of a massive mining operation within the watershed could devalue the premium price that consumers are now willing to pay for Bristol Bay products.

Trumping all these concerns will be the ever-looming threat posed by the possible failure of massive earthen dams that would be required to hold back the toxic mine waste, or tailings, that an operation such as the Pebble Mine would produce. That mine waste would remain toxic effectively in perpetuity, meaning that even after the mine is tapped out and no longer producing, the mining company will have to ensure that the facility’s dams will literally hold water for centuries to come. Exacerbating these concerns is the Bristol Bay region’s location on a major fault system, making it prone to earthquakes and further complicating the project’s engineering challenge.

In defending its still-unreleased mine plan, Pebble Partnership CEO Shively claims modern engineering has addressed these concerns, pointing to similar mines in Chile with tailings dams that held during an 8.8 magnitude earthquake in 2010. But until the company reveals its plan and explains the details of the location and capacity of its tailings dams—some of which could stand taller than the Washington Monument and be required to hold back 10 billion tons of waste material—the potential ramifications of a breach cannot be known.

A coalition of mine opponents has called on the EPA administrator to exercise her authority under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act—which allows the agency to modify projects likely to cause “unacceptable adverse effects” on local fisheries, waters, wildlife, and recreational resources—and identify which places in the Bristol Bay region should be off-limits to mine development before federal agencies begin environmental permit review for the Pebble Project. Past EPA administrators have used this authority a dozen times under all presidents since Jimmy Carter. The agency is currently reviewing two projects for possible action under Section 404(c)—the Big Branch Surface Mine in Kentucky and the Spruce No. 1 Mine in West Virginia. The question now is whether McCarthy will opt to exercise this authority to preempt development of the Pebble Mine.

Alaska natives have subsisted on the resources provided by the land of the Bristol Bay region for thousands of years. Today, the bay’s salmon populations sustain not just native villages but also thousands of jobs, from the Alaskan wilderness to Seattle, Washington, and across the globe. Silver salmon from the Nushagak River hang in traditional smokehouses in Ekwok and are auctioned at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.

Shively perhaps made the best case for the Bristol Bay salmon industry during a presentation in 2011, when he said, “if you have to make a choice between fish and mining, you choose fish every time.” During that same presentation, he said, “The question is: can they co-exist, and is there any evidence that fish and mining can co-exist?”

A full two years later, his question remains to be answered, particularly since Shively and his Pebble partners have yet to publish a mine plan. Frankly, it is hard to conceive of a plan capable of achieving anything close to a balance between mining and a way of life that is inextricably linked to one of the world’s most intact and productive ecosystems.

It is looking increasingly likely that the best decision on the Pebble Mine proposal will be to follow the advice of Shively himself: “choose fish every time.”

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy