Pebble Mine: A Threat to Salmon, Belugas and a Way of Life
Most Americans will never visit Bristol Bay, Alaska; still, they have a major stake in its environmental health. In 2018 alone, fishermen in Bristol Bay harvested 41.3 million sockeye salmon, the largest amount on record. Even more remarkable, especially in an age of overfished or collapsing fishing stocks, the 2018 harvest was sustainable. Another 21 million sockeye swam upriver to spawn a new generation. The fishery supports 12,000 fishermen and generates 1.5 billion in annual economic activity.
At the moment, Bristol Bay's salmon populations are thriving. A healthy population of fish can boost an entire ecosystem. Chasing their favored prey into the rivers each summer, Bristol Bay's beluga whales are also thriving. After decades of exploitation for commercial and research purposes, the once-diminishing population has begun to grow again; scientists think the booming salmon population is to be thanked for the beluga’s recovery.
Pebble Mine threatens to destroy the roots of this vital ecosystem. Slightly north of Lake Iliamna, between Cook Inlet and Bristol Bay, lies a deposit of 57 billion pounds of copper and 70 million ounces of gold. Through its subsidiary Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), the Canadian company Northern Dynasty Minerals has had its sights set on developing this resource for more than a decade. To get at the ore, Northern Dynasty would move aside 10 billion tons of earth, store it in a tailings pile, and build the largest open pit mine in North America. At full scale, the mine and its associated facilities would be approximately the size of the island of Manhattan.
In response to concerns from the indigenous communities of Bristol Bay, the Environmental Protection Agency exercised a preemptive veto to the proposed Pebble Mine under the Clean Water Act in 2014. However, as with many environmental safeguards, the Trump Administration rolled back this protection and breathed new life into the project, just hours after then EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt met with Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) President Tom Collier.
The revamped mine proposal is purported to be “controversy free” because it proposes a scaled back version of the original project: 16 percent of the ore on site would be recovered and then transported by ferry and truck to Cook Inlet and shipped out to markets across the world. However, this is not what Northern Dynasty has told its investors. Behind closed doors, Northern Dynasty has made it clear they plan to develop the entire site to its full scale.
Even scaled down, the new version of the mine raises far more questions than it answers, remarkable considering the Environmental Impact Statement alone is over 1,400 pages long. While tailings dams can and have failed, most recently in the horrific Brumadinho Dam disaster in Brazil, the EIS does not evaluate a catastrophic scenario for Pebble’s tailings. Nor does it consider any alternatives to the mine’s proposed size or location, or even include most of the baseline data necessary to prove how its impact could be mitigated. Though no mine has ever successfully done so, Pebble maintains, without any credible evidence, that it will recover 100 percent of all water used in and around the mine. It also makes the preposterous claim that it will actually enhance fish habitat in the region.
And the impacts do not stop at the mine site. The project includes the construction of a new port in Cook Inlet just on the edge of Katmai National Park where ore would be loaded and shipped abroad. In addition to introducing roads and large scale industrial development to a pristine wilderness area, Amakdedori Port could irreparably damage the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale’s critical habitat. Additional impacts from noise, pollution from copper or other materials running off the port, or even dust from the endless stream of trucks, could tip an already beleaguered population of belugas irrecoverably over the edge. None of these concerns – nor any raised by the EPA, the communities of Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet, or elsewhere – has registered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that is conducting the EIS. Even though many of these same issues were evident during the scoping phase of comments, the Corps has forged ahead, aiming to stamp its approval on the project by 2020. This would be the fastest approval for any large mine in the United States in modern permitting history.
This hasty, sloppy and shortsighted proposal threatens the salmon, the belugas, and everyone who depends on a healthy ecosystem in Bristol Bay. EIA joins many other groups and individuals from Alaska and across the United States in stating simply and unequivocally – no to pebble mine.