The proposed Pebble Mine would be the biggest in North America, covering a huge area near the headwaters of spawning grounds for the world’s biggest sockeye salmon “runs” — the Nushagak and Kvichak River systems in the Bristol Bay region.
Alaska’s upper Bristol Bay watershed covers 40,000 square miles of virtually pristine wild tundra and wetlands that support subsistence hunters, fishing tourism, and widely diverse wildlife, including bears, eagles, and half the world’s sockeye salmon.
Nearly 80% of the 41 million-plus sockeye salmon caught in the 2018 Bristol Bay harvest were born in rivers and creeks close and vulnerable to the proposed mine and must return to their birth waters to spawn.
Sockeye and other salmon from Bristol Bay are uniquely rich sources of protein, vitamin D, and omega-3s that provide highly nutritious sustenance for people.
And Bristol Bay salmon support some 135 animal species, whose waste matter constitutes a "biological power cable" from the ocean to the Northwest rain forest. (Nitrogen 15 — an isotope unique to the ocean — abounds in the plants and trees surrounding salmon rivers and streams.)
The U.S. EPA previously concluded that the Pebble Mine would irreparably harm regional waters — but the current administration supports the mine, as do many people in Alaska, despite its very poor risk-vs-reward prospects.
Read on for the scary details, or click down to "What can you do? Voice your opinion before June 29", below.
Risks of proposed Pebble Mine far outweigh benefits
Bristol Bay is home to a 130-year-old commercial sockeye salmon fishery — and a far older native Alaskan fishery — that generates some 14,000 jobs and $1.5 billion of economic activity annually.
In contrast, the mine backers estimate that it would employ about 2,000 construction workers and about 850 in "permanent" production jobs — which would last only as long as the mine remained in operation. And the vast majority of profits generated by the mine would go to investors, not locals.
The proposed mine would be owned and operated by Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), which in turn is owned by a Canadian firm called Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.
Its size, type, geochemistry, and location all raise red flags for the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery. In fact, the proposed Pebble Mine runs a high risk of polluting the salmon creeks and rivers that flow into Bristol Bay.
To put the amount of waste requiring perpetual protection into proportion, the proposed mine’s 10-square-mile containment pond would hold from 2.5 billion to 10 billion tons of mine waste — nearly enough to bury the city of Seattle.
And these billions of tons of waste would need to be completely, perpetually contained to prevent acidic and metallic pollution of the region's groundwater and waterways.
A 2014 disaster at British Columbia’s Mount Polley Mine showed that even "advanced" mining technology can fail, with devastating consequences. While the PLP says they would use a safer design — but there are no guarantees, and any containment failure could devastate salmon populations.
As the PLP's chairman, John Shively, admitted in March of 2013, “Could [the Pebble mine] do damage to the fishery if something went wrong? The answer to that is yes.”
Indeed, the extremely checkered history of open-pit mining in North America affords no credible assurance that anyone can guarantee protection of surrounding rivers and streams.
Pebble Mine slouches toward approval
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently considering the PLP’s application for a Clean Water Act permit, which would cover only a small portion of the Pebble deposit.
Importantly, the current proposal would seek to mine less than 15% of the total deposit (about 5.3 square miles), but the mine operators surely hope and expect that its approval will ease future approval of a much larger mine.
As part of the Clean Water Act permit process, the Corps recently released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) — which experts have called inadequate — intended to probe the potential impacts of the PLP’s current Pebble Mine proposal.
The Draft EIS concludes that PLP’s proposed 20-year mine operation would eliminate 8+ miles of anadromous streams, 80+ miles of streams not already identified as hosting anadromous species [e.g., salmon or trout] and 3,500+ acres of wetlands, lakes and ponds.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) previously studied the potential impacts and concluded that open-pit mines should be restricted in scale so as to eliminate no more than 5 miles of anadromous streams, 9 miles of streams not already identified as hosting anadromous species [e.g., salmon or trout], and not more than 1,100 acres of wetlands, lakes and ponds.
In other words, at minimum, the Army Corp's estimated impacts of the current, smaller-scale Pebble Mine proposal would far exceed the limits EPA deemed unacceptable back in 2014.
Moreover, PLP’s current mining proposal to the Corps is likely just the first step toward a much larger operation that could cause far greater damage.
The infrastructure investment necessary to implement this smaller proposal would likely approach $10 billion, but at the end of its 20-year timeline, much greater amounts of minerals would still be in the ground.
So, it’s no surprise that PLP is talking to potential financial partners about a 70-year-plus mining project whose far greater returns would provide critical justification for the initial $10 billion investment.
In a rather transparent attempt to mask its true intent — to leverage permission for the smaller mine to gain permission for a much larger one — PLP’s recent outreach has emphasized that its smaller mine plan is the product of “listening to Alaskans.”
Expert observers fear that the “small-scale” mine for which PLP currently seeks permission will destroy many more miles of streams and acres of wetlands than the EPA found acceptable, while the larger mine that the PLP will almost certainly seek would inflict even greater damage.
In other words, the effects of the immediate, smaller proposal on the region, its people and fisheries would be damaging and irreversible — and approval of it would constitute a big step on a slippery slope toward a much larger, far more devastating mine.
What can you do? Voice your opinion before June 29!
There’s still time for the public to weigh in on Pebble Mine. Here’s how:
Thank you for your help in protecting the rivers that feed into Alaska’s Bristol Bay, which give birth to the world’s biggest — and utterly irreplaceable — wild salmon population.
To read our past coverage of the persistent threat of a Pebble Mine at Bristol Bay — including its up-and-down clinical and regulatory history — see the Mining & Seafood Sustainability section of our newsletter archive.