Protecting a priceless resource

It would take a significant issue to get 40+ representatives from a diverse group of hunting and fishing associations across the country to fly to Washington D.C. to talk to a bunch of politicians and federal administrators.

Enter the Pebble Mine.

Photo by Barry and Cathy Beck

The Pebble Mine proposed for the Bristol Bay area of Alaska has become a lightning rod of contentious debate between those who see dollar signs from gold, copper and other precious metals and those who see a gem of nature in peril. The Pebble Limited Partnership is a consortium featuring London-based Anglo American and Canada-based Northern Dynasty.

Ever since the mine was proposed several years ago, it has become a symbol of paradoxes. For example, state officials largely support the project, which could potentially unearth $300 billion in precious metals according to Pebble Mine officials. But many area residents most closely affected by the mine, including native tribes who make their living off of fishing, oppose the mine because of the potential devastating impacts on the fish and their ecosystems. The Bristol Bay watershed is widely viewed as one of the world’s most valuable wild sockeye salmon fisheries supporting a commercial and sport fishery worth $500 million.

Photo by Ben Knight

The scale of the project is enormous. It would be one of the largest mining operations ever gouged in the earth, spreading over a 54-square-mile area located in the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers, two of the eight major rivers that feed Bristol Bay.

Here’s the scary part. Because of the mind-boggling amount of waste such an operation would generate, the developers propose building the world’s largest earthen dam (700 feet high) at the head of a containment pond measuring up to 10 square miles. That pond would “hold” a nasty mix of toxic waste (projected between 2.5 and 10 billion tons over the life of the mine) including sulfides that would require treatment “in perpetuity.” How long will that promise hold?

Worse still, the mine operators discount any threat of a major earthquake or the impact on the integrity of the containment pond, despite serious questions from geologists and seismologists. Consider that in 1964, a massive 9.2 scale quake rocked Anchorage. Any kind of seepage of ore wastes could be devastating. Not to mention the tremendous impact on the ecosystem of drawing 35 billion gallons of water a year from the North and South Fork Koktuli for the mine’s operations.

The project is still in the planning stages and several lawsuits have already been filed and escalated. The next significant step is the anticipated federal Environmental Protection Agency watershed assessment draft study to be released some time in mid-May. The study will look at the Bristol Bay Watershed and the potential impacts such a wide-scale project could have on it.

If the assessment deems the project a threat to Bristol Bay, the EPA, with authority from the federal Clean Water Act, could move to preemptively deny the key permit Pebble Limited Partnership would need to begin operations. That step would likely end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Given what’s at stake, it’s no wonder that opposition to the project represents a wide range of geographically dispersed humanity, from native Alaskans, to sportsmen (520 diverse associations), to chefs and restaurateurs, to biologists, to some politicians and people who care about the environment.

That’s why a well-organized group of sportsmen descended on Washington April 16-18 and met with the White House, EPA executive administrators and key members of Congress to discuss several science- and economic-based concerns over the project.

That’s also why we as sportsmen and women need to educate ourselves about what’s at stake and speak out. The public comment period following the release of the draft watershed assessment will be a great opportunity to make your voice heard.

I may live in North Carolina, but I realize this is far more than a regional squabble. The ramifications, particularly if the mine goes live and the blasting starts, will send tremors globally.

Here are some resources for additional background, with a couple of links to make your thoughts known online.

Colles Stowell

GreenFish – By Anglers | For Fish

One thought on “Protecting a priceless resource

  1. Jim Staples

    Extracting useful natural resources like minerals is important to who we are and what we do as humans, but so is safeguarding the environment. I think it is time we figured out a better way – safer for us and the environment – to extract mineral resources. It may not turn out to be as profitable up front, but we should always be looking at the long term costs, and looking for ways to avoid the cost of cleanup and, even worse, the cost of loss of a river system.


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