by Craig Weatherby
Wild salmon fisheries along the Oregon, Washington, and California coasts have faced environmental threats and closures in recent months. These problems make the safety of the wild Alaskan salmon fishery ever more crucial to the survival of all wild Pacific salmon.
But the wild salmon fishery in Alaskan waters is under threat from Canadian mining interests and short-term thinking among some in the 49th state.
As we said then, A group of mining companies and the State of Alaska are attempting to develop a 540-square mile mining district—including North America’s largest proposed open pit gold mine—in the heart of the Bristol Bay Watershed region of Southwest Alaska. This pristine region is home to the world’s largest sockeye and chinook salmon runs, among other wild treasures.
The Pebble Mine could include a pit 2.5 miles wide and a toxic lagoon covering close to 20 square miles (See “Proposed Mine Threatens Bristol Bay Region and Alaska’s Wild Salmon”).
According to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, fish dependent on the health of rivers in the proposed mining district include all wild salmon species (sockeye, king, silver, pink and chum), as well rainbow trout, Arctic char, Arctic grayling, Northern pike, lake trout, and several species of whitefish.
And a 2005 report by Alaskans for Responsible Mining describes the major rivers in the Bristol Bay Watershed, which include these irreplaceable treasures and resources, among many others:
- The Alagnak River, the upper 56 miles of which Congress designated a National Wild and Scenic River.
- The Kvichak River, which hosts the world¹s largest sockeye salmon run
- Lake Iliamna, Alaska's largest body of freshwater (the size of Lake Erie and home to one of only two freshwater seal populations in the world).
- The Nushagak/Mulchatna River Drainages, site of the largest king salmon run in Alaska, and perhaps the world.
- The Lower Talarik Creek, one of several designated Alaska Trophy Rainbow Trout Areas in the threatened watershed and home to the legendary “Rock Hole,” painted by many artists and known for massive rainbow trout.
Most of the state’s politicians and regulators back the venture... with one highly significant exception whose unexpected opposition could derail the deal (See “Powerful Senator joins grassroots effort”, below).
Judging by the sorry history of the industry to the present day, the proposed mining district is a dagger pointed at the heart of “Salmon Nation”. According to the U.S. EPA, hard-rock mining is the number one toxic polluter in the United States, and has polluted 40 percent of the headwaters of western watersheds: a fact that leaves objective observers skeptical of the assurances of care and safety offered by the operators and their governmental supporters.
The Bristol Bay mine has the potential to reap a $250 billion windfall for distant shareholders, and leave the locals holding a bag full of environmental problems. Any significant damage to the rivers of the Bristol Bay Watershed would cripple the salmon fishery and devastate the region’s Native American tribes, many of whom need the fish to survive on their ancient lands.
Aside from the threat to subsistence tribal villages, any mine-related reduction in—or total destruction of—the rivers’ salmon runs would also harm the wildlife nourished by the fish. And any significant decline in the salmon-driven eco-system could force fishing closures and would discourage the hunters, fishers, and eco-tourists whose dollars support many people in the region.
Powerful Senator joins grassroots effort to fight mine district
The mine seemed an unstoppable force, thanks to the sums being spent on a propaganda campaign intended to persuade Alaskan voters and politicians. But recently, the mine’s advocates received, a sharp, nasty shock when Ted Stevens, Alaska’s generally pro-mining senior Senator, expressed strong opposition to the mine.
Mining has held a warm, romantic spot in Alaskans’ hearts ever since the days of the Klondike gold rush, with the state’s centennial license plates depicting the determined miners’ arduous trek over Chilkoot Pass. (The famous image of the Chilkoot Pass trek was an odd choice for the plate: while many men were drawn to Alaska by gold fever, very few remained and far fewer got rich.)
The state of Alaska seems inclined to rubber stamp mining projects, even though it receives relatively tiny royalties in
|Former official’s assurances belied by state's sorry history|
Bob Loeffler, a top state Department of Natural Resources official told the New York Times, "Alaska's modern mines actually have a very good record with respect to water quality and fish. The notion that's inevitable that any permitted mine will pollute the water and kill the fish is just not true."
Assurances like these lack credibility, given the record. As we reported last year, a 2001 report by the National Park Service documented high levels of toxic metals at the Red Dog Zinc Mine in Alaska's northwest Arctic. In fact, the NPS found that concentrations of toxins at the mine, its haul road, and sea port equal those found at the most polluted industrial sites in Eastern Europe.
return. But to be fair, Alaska is no different from other western states. Rich mining companies hold considerable influence over nationally powerful Senators from thinly populated states.
In addition, the laughably lopsided terms of the Mining Act of 1872 place the interests of mining companies above all other considerations, and give them license to exploit mineral wealth on public lands for mere pennies per acre. (To learn more about this outrageous, obsolete travesty, click here.)
But even a pathetically small percentage of a mine this big would pour a lot of money into the coffers of a state whose officials and residents have grown used to “free money” from the North Slope oil fields, which are not getting any bigger.
Fortunately, the opposition’s message has gotten out through local newspapers and through ads funded by the outdoor tourism industry.
Former governor Tony Knowles, who is running again, has said that the mine represents a "sword of Damocles" over the region.
And according to an August 15, 2006 report by the New York Times, “A hefty coalition of commercial and sport fishing interests and native villages also objects. Even Gov. Frank Murkowski (R), the mine's cheerleader for years, recently began backing off, saying he did not think the state will allow the open-pit mine envisioned by the project.”
Now Senator Stevens is using his clout as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee to kill the mine. His opposition came as a surprise to many, since he is the body's most passionate proponent of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But even Ted Stevens believes that the mine poses too great a risk to salmon fishing, whose long-standing commercial, sport, and subsistence participants combine to constitute a considerable economic sector.
Senator Stevens’ stance suggests that the fight against the mine may also be aided by the fact that the wild salmon fishery holds a treasured place in Alaskans’ heart: one that rivals their nostalgia for the state’s gold-mining roots.
Native groups unite to fight mine: joint action is new
|Wildlife in "southeast" threatened by multiple mines|
The breathtakingly beautiful region of Southeast Alaska near Juneau, from where much of our sockeye hails, is threatened by proposals for mines in Berners Bay, the Taku watershed, and the Admiralty Island National Monument: places famed for their teeming wildlife, cultural significance, recreational opportunities, and scenic beauty.
For more information on the mining threats to Southeast Alaska, click here and here.
Given the local Native tribes’ mostly meager economic circumstances, the companies have succeeded in drumming up some support within them, thanks to misleading public relations campaigns and the illusory promise of long-term jobs and benefits.
Despite these pressures, the leaders of 13 Bristol Bay Native organizations united recently in an unprecedented effort to stop permitting of the proposed mining district.
In a joint press release issued last Monday, they called on state and federal leaders “to protect the region’s clean water, fish and wildlife by creating a multi-million acre fish and wildlife resource area in the Bristol Bay Watershed” and they thanked Senator Stevens for his strong opposition to the proposed mine.
The release also included these deeply felt remarks by Bobby Andrew, president of Aleknagik Natives Limited: “Our fish and wildlife are the real gold mine in this region. Our renewable resources support families, communities and culture and they must be protected. We will not allow a mining district to poison our fish and game and destroy our way of life. We are tired of being ignored by federal bureaucrats and we hope Senator Stevens, Senator Murkowski and Congressman Young will listen to us Alaskans instead of foreign mining companies.”
The resolutions passed at the third annual meeting of Nunumta Aulukestai (Caretakers of Our Land), an association of Native Corporations joined for the first time by tribes from throughout Bristol Bay.
In addition, five Bristol Bay tribes responded to recent water rights applications by Northern Dynasty—the mine consortium’s leader—by submitting a letter to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) asking that the agency take four actions:
- Reserve sufficient water for fish and wildlife in the rivers threatened by the proposed Bristol Bay Mining District.
- Place a five-year moratorium on accepting applications for water withdrawals, diversions and impoundments for large mining projects in the Bristol Bay watershed.
- Establish a specific and transparent process for reviewing state and federal permit applications.
- Create a protected fish and wildlife area in the areas impacted by Northern Dynasty’s water rights applications.
If you share our concern for the future of Alaskan wild salmon, educate yourself on the Bristol Bay Watershed mining proposals, and the dismal record of broken promises by hard-rock miners in the U.S.
To learn more, visit the Web sites of these organizations:
- Bristol Bay Alliance, at http://www.bristolbayalliance.com
- Renewable Resources Coalition at http://www.renewableresourcescoalition.org/pebble_mine.htm
- The Alaska Coalition at http://www.alaskacoalition.org/campaigns/the-oceans
- Westerners for Responsible Mining, at http://www.bettermines.org and http://www.bettermines.org/alaska.cfm
- Mineral Policy Center, at www.mineralpolicy.org
- Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, at http://www.seacc.org
- Alaskans for Responsible Mining (umbrella group), at http://www.reformakmines.org
- View gorgeous mine-district photos by Erin McKittrick at http://www.aktrekking.com/pebble/index.html
- Bobby Andrew, President of Alegenik Natives Limited, (907) 842-5983 or (907) 842-2385
- Lucy Weedman, President of New Stuyahok Tribal Council, (907) 693-3173 or 693-3100
- Herman Nelson, President of Koliganek Natives Limited (907) 596-3519
- Luki Akelkok, President of Nunumta Aulekstai, (907) 464-3300
- Thomas Tilden, President of Curyung Tribal Council, (907) 842-2259
- Bryce Edgmon, President of Choggiung Limited, (907) 842-5218