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.
"Every time we go to London we tell Anglo American's chief executive, Cynthia Carroll, 'Hold to your promise,' " says Kim Williams of the Curyung tribe, who directs Nunamta Aulukestai (Yup'ik for "Caretakers of the Land"), a group of Bristol Bay village corporations, tribes, and a regional corporation. "What part of no is not convincing enough for you?' The promises keep changing. Northern Dynasty said, 'There will be no net loss of fish.' Each company that comes along has a new promise."
I asked Williams about the 20 percent of Bristol Bay residents who don't oppose the mine. Not opposing and favoring are two different things, she explained. "In Newhalen we asked people to sign the Pebble [no mine] Pledge, and we got only six signatures. Although they want salmon forever, one told us: 'My children work for Pebble, and I can't support the pledge.' "
One of the more remarkable aspects of the Pebble issue is not the number of mine promoters stumping for it but the number trying to stop it. Until Northern Dynasty went after the Pebble Deposit, Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), who died in 2010, never saw a mine he didn't love. So consistently did he vote for slapdash resource extraction that the League of Conservation Voters named him to its "Dirty Dozen List." Yet Stevens was death on Pebble. "I just don't like it," he declared, noting that the enormous salmon resource shouldn't be "tampered with."
Even more telling is the current opposition of Rick Halford, former president of the Alaska state senate and a self-proclaimed "redneck Republican." In his 24 years as a state legislator he helped write many of Alaska's permissive mining laws. He never opposed a mine--until Pebble. Now he's leading the opposition. "At first I looked to see if there was a way to make it work," he told me. "Finally I came to comprehend the size; it is beyond imagination. You could put all the mines in Alaska history just in the pit part, and it would be two-thirds to three-quarters empty. I asked an engineer how long 10 billion tons of toxic tailings would be if it were in a column 1,000 feet wide and 1,000 feet high. He came back with a calculation of 29 to 30 miles. The toxic waste has to be managed in perpetuity, and that scares me. I don't think we have a right to do anything to land and water that's perpetual."
I asked Halford if, as arguably Alaska's most ardent and influential mine proponent, he has come under fire from his pals in the industry. "It's interesting," he replied. "Some old friends are critical, but others wish Pebble would go away. The conflict casts a shadow over smaller, less controversial mines. They tell me, 'You're right. We can't say that in our organization.' To friends angry with me I say, 'I've only fallen off the wagon once.' "
What are the chances that Bristol Bay's beauty, wildness, and much of its fish and wildlife won't be destroyed? Considering Alaska's traditional development-at-any-cost mindset, probably not great, but certainly better than they were even a year ago. For one thing, it's hard to think that the EPA would kick such a project from hell to breakfast and then (provided it's still part of an Obama administration) instruct its regulators to sit on their hands. For another, the American public is increasingly engaged.
About 80 percent of global gold production goes to jewelry, something America needs less than its natural crown jewels. Accordingly, Tiffany, Zales, and 58 other jewelry retailers have vowed to boycott Pebble gold by signing a "No Pebble Pledge." Anisa Costa, president of the Tiffany & Co. Foundation, offers this: "We strongly believe Bristol Bay to be one of the world's most pristine landscapes, home to a wild and productive salmon fishery which supports the ecosystem and the native communities around it. The proposed Pebble mine, with its inherent risks, would have a devastating long-term impact. . . . We are proud to sign the Bristol Bay Protection Pledge and urge other U.S. jewelers to do so."
Finally, even the Pebble Partnership is conflicted. Northern Dynasty has never developed a mine. Instead it mines the stock market, snapping up claims and seducing buyers with endless hype about the richness of deposits. Anglo American, a global mining giant, is wary of hype because it fuels opposition. Before Pebble Partnership's Northern Dynasty landed Anglo American as a partner, it landed another global mining giant--Rio Tinto, which owns 20 percent of Northern Dynasty. Rio Tinto studied the dangers and backed away. Now it opposes the project. In April 2012 CEO Tom Albanese opined that, based on environmental concerns, "an open pit mine is not the way to go."
Trout Unlimited's Tim Bristol declares: "This is the largest development project in Alaska since oil was discovered on the North Slope. If we let it happen, nothing is safe. It is our crossroads."
"If people know what's going on, I don't believe this mine will be permitted," adds Rick Halford. "It's an affront to the national conscience."
If you have not seen Bristol Bay, do so soon. And talk to Alaskans who advocate the mine. When it comes to learning about what it's like to live with "affronts to the national conscience," Americans who inhabit our least spoiled state can have no better educators than those who live to their south.