Gold vs. Salmon: How Pebble Mine Threatens Alaskan Salmon

by Nikolai Nikitenko June 11, 2017

Gold vs. Salmon: How Pebble Mine Threatens Alaskan Salmon

Gold vs. Salmon: How Pebble Mine Threatens Alaskan Salmon


The environment and natural resources have been a topic of great controversy in the United States and throughout the world, especially in recent years. We have always had a battle between industrialism and conservation. From one end, profits must grow, jobs must be made, and mouths must be fed. Yet from the other end, we must protect our planet, the environment, and the many species of wild animals that roam the globe.

This clash in society can be seen in areas like North Dakota, where ongoing protests are occurring in a fight against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which if built would span from North Dakota to Illinois, and according to the protestors, would threaten waterways and land that are vital to people in its area. This project has been highly controversial and has been publicized throughout the web, yet there are projects that are being considered which are not getting major media attention, and pose an equal or much greater risk to the environment in which they exist. 

In Alaska there is a hot debate going on between which is more important, salmon or gold. In 2001 a Canadian mining company called Northern Dynasty Minerals began exploring and testing an area of Alaska that is located East of Bristol Bay, North of Lake Iliamna and South West of the Lake Clark Natural Reserve. They were going off of data provided by Cominco Alaska Exploration, who in 1987 discovered a site of possible mineral wealth in the region.

In 2007, the UK based Anglo American joins Dynasty and forms what becomes the Pebble Partnership. One year later, Pebble came back with staggering results; they were standing on what can only be estimated as the 2nd richest mineral reserve in the world, and the largest single bodied copper ore formation ever seen. In 2010 geologists claimed that the region contained around 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold, and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum. Northern Dynasty estimated that Pebble contained over $300 billion worth of recoverable minerals in 2010 prices. 

By 2011, Pebble group invested $374 million in the entire project. Everything seemed to be going into the direction of a great economic undertaking, which would be possibly the largest shift in the Alaskan economy since the Klondike gold rush at the end of the 19th century. Yet there was one question that would lead Pebble group into a major storm of controversy; is the project safe?

Locally the Pebble Mine project was a major issue since Northern Dynasty started their test drilling in the early 2000s. The question that the local population was most concerned about, was the possible effects the mine would have on the local wildlife and environment. Mining in itself has many risks to the region it is in, especially gold and copper mining. When you extract copper from the ore, you end up with a few other byproducts of the process. Many of the byproducts are stored and sold for other industrial uses, but some of these chemical byproducts are extremely hazardous.

Copper mining in itself produces a vast amount of sulfuric acid, which if drained into the environment, would likely destroy any wildlife around it, and decimate the fresh water streams near it. For the local people, this would be an absolute disaster. The region around the prospected mine is not very populous, but it is home to around 7,500 people, according to the US Census who heavily rely on the wildlife for their livelihood, and the majority of the population works in the seafood industry, which if the mine is built, may be irreversibly affected.

Bristol Bay is known to have the largest mass of sockeye salmon in the world and in 2015 around 22.4 million sockeye were caught in Bristol Bay alone and made $111 million. The following year 37 million sockeye were caught with a value of $156.2 million in Bristol Bay. This is a major economy for such a lightly populated area. Not only does it have an economic effect, but also sockeye salmon is vital to the culture of the people. Many of the locals are members of various Native American tribes, and sockeye salmon has been a crucial part of their culture for thousands of years. Bristol Bay sockeye salmon is not just important to the Bristol Bay area, but it is a huge part of the American diet, as salmon is extremely popular in the US. Through the years, demand for Sockeye Salmon has gone up due to the health benefits it holds from the Omega-3 oils found in its meat. The entire ecology of Bristol Bay is threatened, since all of the rivers that flow into the bay originate from hundreds of tributaries that flow from the region surrounding the proposed Pebble Mine site.

The biggest issue with Pebble is not the threat it provides the actual bay, but the rivers that flow into the bay. Salmon is a very unique species in this world, where they will hatch from eggs in a river and lake system, swim out into the ocean, and after thousands of miles will return to the same river to spawn and die. Salmon use a unique sense of smell to help guide them back to their birthplace at the end of the lifetime. It is estimated that 98% of salmon that spawn will do so in the exact location they hatched from their egg. With destruction of habitat and damming of rivers, less and less salmon are able to find their way back to their point of origin. Once the mature salmon find their birthplace, they will lay the eggs, have them fertilized and die. The eggs will eventually hatch, and the newly hatched salmon will swim up river into smaller creeks where they can be safe from larger predators while they grow. After they reach a certain state of maturity the fish will swim down stream and into the sea, to eventually return at the end of their lives to that very point again.

Bristol Bay has two major rivers that flow into it; the Nushagak River, and the Kvickhak River. Lake Iliamna feeds into the Kvichkhak, and the streams that feed into that originate in the same general area as the streams that form the Nushagak. Both bodies of water originate near the land proposed for Pebble Mine, and both river systems are breeding grounds for the majority of salmon found in Bristol Bay.

Pebble Mine, if permitted, would create a project greater in scale than anything before it. Pebble proposes an open pit mine, which at its peak would be nearly 2 miles across and around 4000 feet deep. To put that into perspective, if you placed the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, into pebble mine, then you would still be over 1000 feet short from reaching the surface. Along with the open pit mine; Pebble would need to construct 2 tailings dams, both of which would be the largest of their kind ever seen. Both parts of this mine would present a serious problem. To maintain an open pit mine of that depth, the mine would need to be constantly pumping out ground water, as the mine itself would be deeper than the surface of lake Iliamna and the rivers that feed into it. If you do not pump the water, then the mine will flood. Pumping out ground water at that rate has a great risk to any small creeks or tributaries that originate in the area, and in turn provide spawning grounds for salmon. Creeks and rivers often have water flow between them through ground water, and if you start pumping that water out then you start draining the rivers and creeks, thus destroying the environment. Pebble claims that they will pump the water back into the environment after it has been cleaned, but at such a massive effort this seems impossible to perfect, especially with such delicate ecosystems in place.

The next issue, and arguably the most important is the necessary use of tailings dams. As stated previously, the mining of copper requires a very toxic process to separate the metal from the ore. It begins with taking the raw ore, and crushing it down to almost sand like consistency. After that, the rock and metal are separated by chemicals, which create a sludgy copper concentrate. Once separated, the result leaves the separated copper, and much waste. The waste can be separated into a few categories, first being solid waste, like the rock left behind after the copper is taken out. This rock is then piled up to make massive hills of loose gravel, and in the case of Pebble Mine, it is estimated that there will be around 10 billion tons of this solid waste. The rest is formed in muddy sediment called tailings, which must be contained behind massive dams for the rest of time. Tailings are extremely toxic as they contain everything from cobalt, to nickel, antimony, arsenic, lead, selenium, mercury, cadmium, and the remnants of the desired metal like the copper. The current procedure states that any tailings dam must have reservoirs located beneath the dam itself to collect any chemicals that are leaking and funnel them, back to the dam, and past that are sensors that if triggered mean the secondary reservoirs are not doing enough to counter any leaking and additional efforts are required to stop the toxins from draining into the ecosystem.

The dams themselves need to be built in order to withstand extreme acts of nature as well. Heavy rainfall can overburden any tailings dam and its pump systems and cause a failure of the support walls of the dam itself, resulting in a massive spill. In 2011, heavy rain caused a tailings dam near Mianyang City, China to fail and the result was an entire village covered in toxic sludge, in which 272 people were forced to leave their homes, and 200,000 people were left with no direct source of drinking water. Whether this is a risk for the Pebble project is up to debate, but it is a known fact that the Bristol Bay area is often hit by heavy rain and extreme weather. The largest concern for the Pebble Mine tailings dams is their ability to withstand one of the most violent forces of nature, earthquakes. Pebble engineers state that their tailings dams will be able to withstand the force of a whopping 7.5 magnitude earthquake. Yet many would argue that in Alaska, that is not nearly enough.

Alaska sits on what is known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, which is a collection of fault lines that span from New Zealand, going North, and then West towards Malaysia and Indonesia, turns North all the way to the Kamchatka region of Russia, heads East towards Alaska, and then follows the West coast of all of North America and South America, ending in Southern Chile. 90% of all of the world’s earthquakes occur on the Ring of Fire, and 22 of the 25 largest volcanic eruptions from the past 11,000 years occurred on these fault lines as well. In the past 100 years there have been at least 9 earthquakes in Alaska that have registered, or have been estimated to have gone above the 7.5 magnitude limits on the proposed Pebble Mine tailings dams. That includes the notorious 1964 earthquake that rocked Anchorage and the areas around it with a magnitude of 9.2. To make things even more serious the proposed location of Pebble Mine is located less than 10 miles from the Lake Clark Fault. Whether that fault goes under the proposed mine site is highly debated.

Once built and filled with tailings, the dams will need to be able to hold the waste for the rest of time, or until a better method of disposing of them is created. Any failure of a tailings dam leads to cataclysmic damage to the area around it, and can result in an irreversible dead zone around everything it touches. Copper tailings contain such concentrated levels of hazardous chemicals that exposure to it can be life threatening to humans and animal life. Even minor levels can have an adverse effect on the environment. Scientific studies have found that salmon have a very keen sense of smell, which helps them detect everything from their prey, predators and especially assists them in finding their way to where they hatched so they can spawn. Copper can be deadly to salmon in higher concentrations, but below that it can cause severe damage and interference to the salmon’s sense of smell. With smaller doses of copper a salmon may not die immediately, but without its sense of smell, it will not survive or reproduce. If the tailings dams at Pebble Mine fail, then within weeks, the toxins and contaminants will have swept through the river systems surrounding the mines, through Lake Iliamna, and finally into Bristol Bay. Salmon will not be the only thing affected either. Any wildlife that relies on the river systems for life will perish as well, and any person living off the land and rivers near that region of Alaska will lose their homes and way of life. Tailings dam failure is not an unheard of event either, as since 1961 there have been over 100 separate failings of tailings dams on all 6 inhabited continents.

Feeling like they were battling a entity much more powerful than themselves, the local tribes and fishermen decided to take matters into their own hands. By its reputation, the State of Alaska has never declined to permit a major mining operation. With that in mind, the local populace appealed to the Federal Government of the United States, and the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA came in to Alaska and conducted extensive research on the area and came back in 2013 they came down hard on Pebble Mine. They covered the many risks of placing a mine in the region, including those on the subject of the never-ending danger of acid drainage from the mines and tailings dams. Finally in July of 2014 the EPA announced restrictions against Pebble Mine, citing section 404 (c) of the Clean Water Act. This restriction effectively stopped all hope of Pebble Mine opening until restrictions are lifted. But the trouble for the Pebble project was already coming into full swing way ahead of the EPA restrictions came into play. 

In September 2013, Anglo-American pulled out of the Pebble Mine project, leaving a loss of $541 million behind. With the combination of hits, the Pebble project was put on hold, pending a full permitting process by the State of Alaska, and a lawsuit, which was filed by North Dynasty to combat the restrictions placed by the EPA. The battle seemed won on the side of salmon. Then two years later the inauguration of a new President brought a spark of life into the Pebble Mine Proposal.

With the presidency of Donald J. Trump, the environmental playing field shifted greatly to focus more in favor of industry over nature. By May 2017 the EPA settled with Northern Dynasty and dropped all restrictions for the Pebble Mine. Northern Dynasty immediately filed for permits to begin mining the land. It seems to be a major win for mining, yet even supporters of mining in Alaska are skeptical on whether the permits should be given. Senator Lisa Murkowski stated that Northern Dynasty must prove that Pebble Mine will not threaten the salmon. She told Alaska Dispatch News that “if [Northern Dynasty] can’t prove the mine will be safe, the mine shouldn’t be built”. This change is in no way a guaranteed victory for Pebble Mine, as the permitting process is so complex that it could take almost a decade just to sort out all of the details. By that time Trump will be out of office one way or another, and the next administration could just as easily restrict the construction of Pebble Mine.

The biggest question is whether Northern Dynasty can keep standing long enough to survive the permit process. With its investments and liabilities, a single judgment can lead them to the steps of bankruptcy. The risk of such grows exponentially, as in February of 2017 Northern Dynasty was hit with a proposed class action lawsuit in California federal court by investors accusing the mining company of making false and misleading statements about the value of the project, who called the project “commercially unviable”. Yet the debate goes on. There are so many strong arguments for both sides. For one, the building of Pebble Mine will require over 2000 workers, and once construction is completed there will be around 1000 jobs to go around. Copper, gold, and molybdenum are all vital minerals for society and modern technology. Each of them can be found to some extent in almost every device we use. Yet there is ample production of all three throughout the world. In 2015 alone, the world produced an estimated 19,100,000 tons of copper. It is also estimated that every year the world produces around 2,500-3,000 tons of gold and 250,000 tons of molybdenum.

With the work that is necessary it is estimated that Pebble Mine will be able to operate between 80-100 years. But what happens then? Once the mine is picked dry, the risk of destroying the environment will still remain. Much can happen in the span of a century, but the profits that Pebble Mine promises are temporary. Our children and grandchildren may be around to see the days that the Pebble Mine closes down. Yet if we choose to protect the salmon, then the seafood industry in Bristol Bay will likely exist and thrive for many generations to come. Can the mine and the fisheries co-exist? The answer is too complicated to even turn it into a yes or no answer.

We must weigh the risks of such projects and decide what we want to see in the future. What kind of world will we want to leave behind when our lives end or for future generations? Pebble Mine could change the Alaskan economy by an unimaginable degree. Many people in that region could find opportunity for great success that was not available before. Yet if anything goes wrong, then what will we have when Pebble Mine runs dry?

In 100 years we risk having no operating mines, and no Bristol Bay sockeye salmon. If the land dies and the mines run dry, then we would have turned Alaska into a wasteland, where opportunity no longer exists. In this debate between nature and industry we must weigh our risks with the benefits. Where we look to gain in this endeavor, we may leave future generations with nothing, and we may irreversibly destroy the last frontier on planet Earth.

If this article has moved you, then please do not sit idly by. Share it and tell everyone of what is happening in Alaska. Further information can be found throughout the web, but we will be adding links to other articles and documentaries on the subject for you to learn more on the Pebble Mine project. Join the fight by writing and calling you congressmen! Tell them that the future of Bristol Bay salmon is far more important than a single mine among hundreds already in the world. Thank you.


Frontline Documentary On Pebble Mine

EPA Webpage On Bristol Bay & Pebble Mine

Save Bristol Bay Homepage: No Pebble Mine

Pebble Mine Official Website

Nikolai Nikitenko
Nikolai Nikitenko


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