Hard-rock mining venture alarms Alaskans and salmon lovers, draws opposition from broad spectrum

by Randy Hartnell and Craig Weatherby

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.

Northern Dynasty Mines Inc., an American subsidiary of a Canadian mineral company, is conducting feasibility studies for an open-pit gold and copper site called Pebble Mine.

The Pebble Mine could include a pit 2.5 miles wide and a toxic lagoon covering close to 20 square miles. As large as it would be, the proposed Pebble Mine would be only a small part of an enormous mining district that could span thousands of square miles of the Bristol Bay Watershed. That is, if mining companies have their way.

Given the industry's dismal environmental record, and the U.S. government's equally dismal record of failure to enforce our existing eco-protection laws, the prospect of hard-rock mining near Bristol Bay gives us nightmares.

The threat to Bristol Bay

The Bristol Bay drainages produce the world's greatest commercial salmon fishery and world famous sport fisheries for salmon and trout. These fisheries have long been an integral part of the State's economy and have provided substantial jobs and benefits to Alaskans.

We know Bristol Bay intimately, having spent many years fishing its waters for sockeye and other wild salmon, and having explored some of its glorious, nearly untouched landscapes.

The BBW is home to a wealth of fragile, utterly unique natural resources, including:

  • The most productive commercial salmon fishery on Earth
  • All five species of Alaska's Pacific Salmon
  • The world's largest Sockeye Salmon run
  • The largest Chinook Salmon run in Alaska (and perhaps the world)
  • A sport trout fishery that attracts more wilderness fans than any other area of the state
  • A vital Native subsistence fishery
  • Thriving sport-fishing lodges, guide, outfitter, and transporter services
  • Alaska's second-to-third largest Caribou herd

As the New York Times noted in an article on the proposed mines, “…the region's salmon runs still are spectacular.… In 2004, more than 27 million salmon were commercially harvested in Bristol Bay. Most were sockeye, the most valuable of the five species of salmon.”

Hard rock mining: hard times for people and wild nature

Based solely on its record of destruction, the hard-rock mining industry can legitimately be considered the most polluting and destructive industry on earth. 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 stream reaches of the headwaters of western watersheds

Despite the abysmal environmental record of the hard-rock mining industry and its status as one of the largest toxic polluters in the U.S., it is subject to some of the weakest environmental regulations of any major industry.

Northern Dynasty says that it will follow the guidelines required by state and federal law.  But their long, regrettable track record proves that state and federal government agencies do not have the legal authority, manpower, ability, or desire to prevent or adequately mitigate the impacts these mines would have on the Bristol Bay region's waters and habitat.

For example, The Red Dog Zinc Mine in Alaska's northwest Arctic has polluted the mine site, the mine's haul road, and the sea port where it loads its ore for shipment. A 2001 report by the National Park Service documented toxic metals along the mine's haul road at concentrations equaling those found at the most polluted industrial sites in Eastern Europe.

Opposition to the mining district is not a partisan issue. In an interview with the Times, former Republican governor of Alaska Jay Hammond expressed strong opposition to the mine: "In my view it's one of the least appropriate spots for a mine… it's more environmentally sensitive than ANWR [Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] development."

What you can do

If Alaska's state regulators approve the Pebble Mine—which they will be under tremendous pressure to do—the Bristol Bay region will be more likely to play unwilling host to other mines as well.

We recommend that you educate yourself on the Bristol Bay Watershed mining proposals, and the record of hard-rock mining in the U.S.

If you agree that it poses an unacceptable threat, support the local non-profit organizations that are trying to force the government to protect the environment.

These are the Web addresses of some leading advocacy groups:

  • Bristol Bay Alliance, at http://www.bristolbayalliance.com
  • Westerners for Responsible Mining, at http://www.bettermines.org and http://www.bettermines.org/alaska.cfm
  • Mineral Policy Center, at www.mineralpolicy.org
  • Alaska Wilderness Recreation and Tourism Association, at http://www.awrta.org
  • Indigenous Environmental Network, at http://www.ienearth.org
  • Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, at http://www.seacc.org
  • Alaskans for Responsible Mining (umbrella group), at http://www.reformakmines.org