Giant Strip Mine Threatens Alaska's Iconic Bristol Bay
Pick the worst place on the planet for a giant strip mine, in the heart of America's wildest and most productive ecosystem. That's exactly where one is planned.
The assessment, 15 months in the making and released last May, lambastes the project, reporting that even if everything worked perfectly forever (an impossibility), there would be major damage to fish and wildlife. But it also reports that the failure of pipelines transporting toxic mining concentrate across 30 salmon rivers and along Alaska's biggest lake--Iliamna--can be "expected." Most of the EPA's data, unlike Pebble's, have been peer reviewed by independent scientists.
"It's a good document," says Tim Bristol, Trout Unlimited's Alaska Program director. "It was a huge public service, because all we had before were giant volumes of data from Pebble without context. People had been completely overwhelmed and bewildered, and that was Pebble's goal."
But no sooner had the EPA released its document than Pebble and its allies screamed about being denied "due process." They had been denied nothing. They hadn't been regulated; the EPA had merely reported facts they didn't want the public to know. Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), then chair of the Committee on Oversight, went so far as to accuse the agency of trying "to preemptively veto permits." Alaska governor Sean Parnell accused it of "federal overreach." Pebble called the document "rushed," "premature," and "fundamentally flawed." And it ordered, controlled, and paid for reams of alleged science from consultants that supposedly give the lie to all the independent research cited by the EPA. In a failed effort to prove that the EPA had stolen material from Trout Unlimited and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Pebble even paid Ecofish Research to use "plagiarism software."
Pebble and its hired EPA trashers express a minority opinion. Of about 204,000 comments the EPA received from around the nation, 200,000 (98 percent) approve of the document.
What the EPA didn't look at, because it wasn't asked to, was damage to Bristol Bay's nature and quality. The area would be converted from a remote wildlife sanctuary to an industrial park complete with roads, power plants, power lines, sewage-treatment plants, a deepwater port, and, at its heart, a sprawling toxic-waste storage facility. Once all that was in place seven other mining companies, with combined leases that would dwarf Pebble's footprint, would flock in.
The flow of humans would harm fish and wildlife at least as much as the flow of poisons. Thomas Quinn of the University of Washington, a professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences who has studied Bristol Bay salmon for 25 years, offers this: "The roads would drain sediments into streams. Erosion under culverts would block fish passage. The huge human presence would include legal and illegal fishing and major impacts on subsistence. The whole region would change radically. . . . At present you can catch nearly 50 percent of the salmon every year and the system will keep producing. It's a biological perpetual-motion machine, free money and free food forever. From that point of view, if you were to pick the worst place in the world for this kind of mine, it would be right where they've got it."
Pebble's assurances fail to convince, and not just because its studies are nonsensical and warmed over. Both partners--Anglo American and Northern Dynasty--have a history of breaking promises and making untruthful statements.
Because Upper Talarik Creek contains some of the most sensitive trout and salmon habitat in the region, Northern Dynasty promised to stay away from it. "Fish come first," it chanted. It then applied for permission to dry the creek up by draining it into the tailings impoundment. And it drilled test holes in the watershed, fouling groundwater with toxic drilling mud.
Pebble claims that it has yet to file a plan and that, therefore, no one should speculate on dangers. But in order to apply for Talarik Creek water rights, Northern Dynasty needed a plan, and it applied in 2006.
Unlike other states, Alaska protects streams only if it finds fish in them. And, conveniently for Pebble, it rarely looks. So for a while no one could refute Pebble when it proclaimed that streams around the mine site are essentially worthless to salmon because they "typically freeze solid during the winter."
But then Carol Ann Woody, a Ph.D. research scientist who left the U.S. Geological Survey in 2006 to start her own fisheries consulting business, procured funding from The Nature Conservancy and started her own survey. She told me this: "Pebble was making claims I knew weren't true. I've worked that area since 1991, and those streams do not freeze solid; I have photos in the dead of winter--sub-zero temperatures for weeks--where you see open, flowing water. It's groundwater, and that's essential salmon habitat."
Woody and her team have surveyed 105 streams in and around the proposed mine site, documenting salmon in 75 percent and trout, char, and other native fish in 98 percent. They've even found salmon directly on top of the deposit. "Pebble hates that there are fish there," says Trout Unlimited's Bristol. "They're trying to get Woody's findings thrown out."
"Good luck with that," says Woody. "We've got photos and GPS coordinates."
Anglo American has consistently promised not to mine the deposit without regional support. In 2011 residents of Bristol Bay's Lake and Peninsula Borough, which covers the mine site, voted for a "Save Our Salmon" initiative. Pebble is challenging the vote in court. The Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the largest private landowner in the region, voted overwhelmingly to oppose the mine. Now 80 percent of all Bristol Bay residents are opposed. But Pebble presses on.