Court ruling forces distinction between toxic mine tailings and harmless fill; move may protect Alaska's vital Bristol Bay ecosystem

by Craig Weatherby

We are surprised and very pleased that a top federal court has issued a preliminary ruling that could help block the vast Pebble Mine complex proposed for siting near Alaska's vital Bristol Bay ecosystem.

As we've written, this massive mine region is a misconceived threat to a watershed critical to salmon and other fisheries and to native peoples and the regions' growing recreation industry (See “Opposition to Salmon-Risking Mine Gains Momentum” and “Alaska's “Fish Basket” Opened to Oil and Gas Leasing”).

Bristol Bay hosts almost one-third of Alaska's salmon population and the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery.

Last month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers erred in allowing a gold mine company to dump toxic tailings from Kensington Mine into a lake near Juneau, Alaska, hundreds of mile to the south.

The Kensington Mine permit was a key test case for the Bush Administration's interpretation of language in federal law and regulation, and this major ruling against it should help halt similar operations elsewhere in the U.S.: especially the proposed Pebble Mine upriver from Alaska's Bristol Bay.

Like the Kensington Mine, the Pebble Mine would dump vast quantities of toxic mine tailings into holding lakes. A broad coalition of business, environmental, fishing and native groups is opposing the mine because of its damaging potential.

The Boston Globe today quoted Lindsey Bloom, a Bristol Bay fishing boat captain, saying, “This is it. Do we value a life-sustaining resource or do we value gold? You can't eat gold.

These are the key points, excerpted from an editorial in the Globe (The Boston Globe, 2007):

  • “In Alaska, the world's most valuable wild salmon run is threatened by a plan to dig North America's largest open-pit gold and copper mine… Copper released into the environment, the fishermen know, interferes with the ability of the salmon to return to the stream in which it was born.”
  • “…the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals [concluded recently]... that mining tailings, the waste product of a chemical milling process, could not be treated like mere ‘fill material'.”
  • “Federal officials should take their cue from the Court of Appeals and make the Clean Water Act a bulwark against the Pebble project.”

However, once the detailed ruling is released, it could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed or overturned more than six in ten of the Ninth Circuit decisions it judged between 1994 and 2006.

Keep your fingers crossed!


  • The Boston Globe. Protect Alaska's wild salmon. Accessed online April 2, 2007 at protect_alaskas_wild_salmon/