Copper, Gold and Salmon Toxic Concerns Surround Pebble Mine Project in Alaska's Bristol Bay

There’s a vast supply of valuable metal in Alaska just waiting to be mined, but doing so could spell environmental disaster for the area’s salmon population. A major discovery of gold, copper and a metallic ore called molybdenum have been scoped out via exploratory drills near Bristol Bay, Alaska. If unearthed, they are estimated to be worth some $300 billion, and extracting them could provide hundreds of jobs for rural Alaskans. But the streams, rivers and tributaries that empty into the bay are also home to one of the world’s last great runs of Pacific sockeye salmon.

The Pebble Mine operation, as it’s known, is located in the heart of the Bristol Bay watershed. In July 2007, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. and London-based mining group Anglo American established the Pebble Partnership to permit, engineer, construct and operate a long-term copper and gold mine there. Mike Heatwole, the vice president of public affairs for the Pebble Partnership, explained that the company is in the process of gathering data on the water and fish in the area.

“We’ve been studying the area for almost six years,” he says. “Before we apply for permits, we need environmental assessments and a preliminary development plan that includes…the plans to mitigate environmental impacts.”

A native Alaskan dries salmon.

Heatwole says the company will apply for permits in 2011—hundreds of them. He’s confident the approvals will come. “The preliminary development plan will answer what style of mining is proposed,” he says. “The west zone is more amenable to open-pit [mining], while the east zone is deeper under ground and requires block cave [mining].”

Regardless of the proposed plan, the mining project is destined to have an enormous impact on the landscape of Bristol Bay. The project would require damming most of the South Fork Koktuli valley and forming a tailing pond for toxic chemicals.

Carol Ann Woody owns and operates Fisheries Research and Consulting in Anchorage, Alaska. She says the plans are worrisome. “The earthen dam must not leak and must contain the waste indefinitely,” Woody says, adding: “It is in an area that is known for seismic activity and active volcanoes.”

Woody has spent a number of years researching the sal-mon population in Bristol Bay. She says that mining there would release copper sulfide, which is toxic to aquatic life at very low levels. “Two to 10 parts per billion would wipe out a salmon’s ability to smell,” Woody says, “and without that ability they will not be able to find the chemical cues required to get back to their spawning grounds.” The construction would also require hundreds of miles of industrial roads and a 100-mile-long slurry pipeline for the copper ore that she says would cross over 30 salmon streams and run along the biggest salmon lake.

“The concern is that you’d have this huge industrial complex wiping out their habitat and then a pipeline that could potentially break and leak copper elsewhere into extremely porous soil with groundwater very close to the surface,” Woody warns.

An aerial view of the bay

Kendra Zamzow, a scientist with the Center for Science in Public Participation, has researched acid mine drainage and monitored and sampled water in the Bristol Bay area. Zamzow is concerned that such a massive undertaking could not possibly anticipate all the long-term damage. “Any time you’re disturbing rock it will leach metals; the issue is controlling the runoff,” she says. “Some of the rock may take 50 to 60 years before it begins leaching acid. It’s hard to understand how to mitigate something if you don’t know what’s there. Some of the streams will be lost permanently and they must plan to mitigate those losses.”

Woody believes the mining project will receive state support based purely on economics. But she worries that the Pebble Partnership is not adhering to stringent standards, and Alaska does not require any scientific oversight.

“The company is controlling the science that determines whether or not they get permits. There’s an incentive to cherry-pick data and to show the project can be done without harming the environment,” Woody says. “Here is this gorgeous, pristine freshwater lake and given the status of freshwater on this planet, Alaska should be doing all it can to ensure the water stays clean.”