Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Proposed open pit Pebble Mine threatens important Alaska salmon fishery

Image from poster for the documentary Red Gold: the Pebble Mine Debate courtesy Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) Department of Natural Resources, who sponsored a showing of this film last November in Baraga as part of KBIC's "Mining Impacts on Native Lands" Film Series. This week the film was hosted in Hancock by the Copper Country Chapter of Trout Unlimited and two visiting Alaskan dog mushers, Monica Zappa and Tim Osma.

By Carol Johnson Pfefferkorn*

HANCOCK -- Bristol Bay, Alaska, described as a "gem in a jewel," is being threatened by a potential open pit mine called Pebble Mine. Last night, Feb. 21, at the Orpheum Theater in Hancock, the Copper Country Chapter of Trout Unlimited (CCCTU) hosted two Alaskan dog mushers, Monica Zappa and Tim Osmar, who have decked their sleds, truck and dog coats, and traveled thousands of miles to bring attention to the dangers to Bristol Bay from an open pit mining proposal. They raced in the UP 200 dogsled race and hosted three screenings of a documentary, Red Gold: the Pebble Mine Debate, about Bristol Bay.

According to, "The Pebble deposit is a massive storehouse of gold, copper and molybdenum, located in the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers, two of the eight major rivers that feed Bristol Bay. If built, Pebble would be one of the largest mines in the world. Because of its size, geochemistry and location, Pebble runs a high risk of polluting Bristol Bay, one of the world’s few and most productive wild salmon strongholds that supports a $500 million commercial and sport fishery. For this reason, Trout Unlimited is working with a diverse group of fishermen, guides, lodge owners, Alaska Natives, scientists, chef, restaurant owners, seafood lovers and many others to try to stop the Pebble development and to protect Bristol Bay."**

In this scene from the documentary Red Gold, a Native fisherman prepares salmon filets for preservation. Two visiting Alaskan dog mushers, Monica Zappa and Tim Osmar, along with the Copper Country Chapter of Trout Unlimited, hosted the showing of the film in Hancock's Orpheum Theater on Feb. 21, 2012. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

Save Bristol Bay also notes the proposed mine developers, the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), are a consortium of the world’s second largest multinational mining corporation, London-based Anglo American, and Northern Dynasty, a junior mining company headquartered in Canada.

Opponents of the mine are critical of Anglo American’s environmental track record Northern Dynasty's lack of environmental experience since it has never before developed a mine. PLP's preliminary designs indicate that the Pebble Mine complex would span 20 square miles of state land in the Bristol Bay watershed. The proposed mine -- an open pit up to 4,000 feet deep and 2.3 miles wide -- would produce up to 10.8 billion tons of waste rock, resulting in one or more of the world’s largest tailings storage facilities.

"Located in a seismically active region, Pebble would require the world’s largest earthen dam to be built, some 700 feet high and several miles in length. Independent scientists have questioned whether the dam could withstand the force of a massive earthquake, such as the 9.2 quake that devastated Anchorage in 1964."**

The Wild Salmon Center and Trout Unlimited have produced a report examining the proposed Pebble Mine and its potential impacts on the wild salmon fishery of Bristol Bay.

Examining a wide body of studies, reports, and the best available scientific information, the report analyzes preliminary proposals for the mine, concluding there is too much at stake ecologically, economically, and culturally to risk development of the Pebble deposit.***

Preliminary proposals and studies presented by developers indicate that the Pebble Mine:
  • contains ore that has a high likelihood of generating acid mine drainage, which is severely harmful to salmon and other aquatic species;
  • will produce up to 10.8 billion tons of waste rock, requiring miles of tailings dams initially proposed up to 740 feet high;
  • may use 35 billion gallons of fresh water per year, more than three times the usage of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city; and
  • will construct multiple sources of contamination, including: an open pit and underground mine, an 86 mile road and pipeline route, a deep-water port and other infrastructure.
"This report shows the far-reaching impacts that development of the Pebble deposit would have on Bristol Bay’s world-class salmon fishery and largely pristine watersheds," said Guido Rahr, President of the Wild Salmon Center. "In addition to risks posed by the chronic leaching of contaminants or a catastrophic failure, the proposed mine would substantially alter the hydrology, water table, and available habitat for salmon, which are extremely sensitive to changes in their environment."

An unprecedented coalition of Alaska Native tribes and corporations, sportsmen, commercial fishermen and others have asked the EPA to protect Bristol Bay by withdrawing the watershed as a disposal site for dredge and fill activities under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. The EPA is currently conducting a scientific assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed to determine whether large-scale development would adversely impact the region’s natural resources.

T-shirts for sale at the film showing depict the proposed Pebble Mine's threat to Bristol Bay's wild salmon fishery. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

The documentary Red Gold describes Bristol Bay, with its commercial and sports fishery, as a fully-functioning ecosystem that would be destroyed by the proposed Pebble Mine. The film shows all sides of the debate -- from industry officials to the people of Bristol Bay -- Native, commercial and sport fishermen -- whose way of life depends on this important fishery.

A representative of Northern Dynasty Mines, interviewed in the film, said, "We will not be swayed by environmentalists who say we will cause an ecological disaster. Fish can exist right alongside the copper mine. It will not destroy the fish."

Mayor Ole, self-proclaimed mayor of Bristol Bay, said, "This is just a wrong idea in the wrong place."

At a "Stop the Pebble Mine" rally, local residents urged state and federal lawmakers to defeat the proposal, saying this mine would change their lives forever.

"Salmon are a part of our life. We were raised by salmon. It’s where we come from, what we were born to," residents said.

About 60 people watched the film in the Orpheum Theater. Many enjoyed free beer and pizza during the introduction by the visiting dog mushers. Afterwards some expressed their impressions of the film.

Tom Rozich, President of the Copper Country Chapter of Trout Unlimited, said he felt the documentary was well done, gave equal time to both sides, and offered enough information so that individuals will be able to make an informed decision about open pit mining.

Personally, Rozich added, he feels that, using current technology, Pebble Mine is not going anywhere. The mine waste generated would ruin the fragile environment, which is not acceptable.

However, he noted that some day, once technology improves to the point that mining can occur safely, without hurting the environment, without destroying waters and wildlife, it will happen.

Houghton resident Jim Curtis said, "Somehow we have to figure out how we can get the resources we need without ruining the environment. Mining has a huge impact on our society."


* Keweenaw Now guest writer Carol Johnson Pfefferkorn recently moved to the Keweenaw from the Menominee area. In addition to writing, she is assisting Keweenaw Now with advertising and public relations.

** See to read more about the Pebble Mine.

*** Click here for a summary of the report. To download a full copy of the report, click here.

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