Issues Magazine

Bristol Bay and Alaska’s Pebble Mine

By Carl Johnson

The Bristol Bay region in Alaska is at the centre of a decision about developing one of the largest gold and copper mines in the world. What does this mean for a people who are deeply connected to the land and a region that produces half of the world’s sockeye salmon supply?

The Bristol Bay region of south-western Alaska has seven river systems that provide incredible habitat to a variety of wildlife and fish, including all five species of Pacific salmon. A Canadian and British joint venture seeks to bring jobs to the region and wealth to their shareholders by developing a massive gold, copper and molybdenum mine at two of those rivers’ headwaters.

But people in the region fear the development of that mine, known as the Pebble Mine, because of the potential for adverse impact to the land, waters and resources of the region.

Much of the discussion about the Bristol Bay region and the proposed development of the Pebble Mine focuses on the future. However, to understand the issues you need to look first to the past.

Looking to the Past
It is a cold November day in 1955 on the banks of the north fork of the Koktuli River, the headwaters of the Nushagak watershed – one of the major waterways feeding into Bristol Bay in south-western Alaska. Snow has been building for over a month, forcing caribou to migrate, bears to den, and the last migratory fowl to take off for warmer habitats to the south.

Below the surface, deep in the hyporheic zone where groundwater and surface water mix, salmon eggs take advantage of the protective reaches of gravel and sand for protection from the onslaught of winter. They are yet another generation of sockeye salmon, part of a race that has become genetically adapted to the rich, pure waters that have provided a stable environment for thousands of years. On the surface, an artesian spring flows over the ground, creating a rare dark mark in this vast, white land. The seep is one of dozens in the area, illustrating the intense connectivity between the surface and ground waters in the area.

Several hills and low valleys away to the south-east, a Dena’ina Athabascan elder is taking his nephews out to hunt for caribou near the Upper Talarik Creek, passing on traditions that have been part of the Alaska Native heritage for thousands of years. Later, he and his nephews will set trap lines to obtain furs that can be sold for cash. Downstream to the south, in Lake Iliamna, the only population of freshwater harbour seals in the world are waiting for the ice to form so they can give birth to their pups.

Almost 100 miles to the south-west, on the edge of Bristol Bay, Violet Groat is five years into her 50+ year career in the commercial fishing industry, working as a winter watchman at the Bumblebee Cannery in South Naknek at the mouth of the Naknek River. She lives there full-time with her husband and children. The commercial fishing industry has just suffered another devastating year of losses due to poor management by outside salmon packers who still hold powerful sway over federal fishery managers. Some fishermen only had 36 hours of fish openings in that season. In that decade, the Alaska salmon runs were declared a federal disaster.

At the same time, 300 miles to the north-east in the heart of the Alaskan interior, a man stands before a gathering of delegates at the University of Alaska campus in Fairbanks to present his opening remarks to the Alaska Constitutional Convention. E.L. “Bob” Bartlett rises to speak to the gathered delegates, determined to join the partnership of the United States as the newest state, and create a framework for protecting Alaska’s resources. During his speech, he addresses the value of Alaska’s resources and vows to ensure that Alaska’s resources will be used to the benefit of all Alaskans, not just to enrich the robber barons like those in the mining industry who plunder the land and leave behind a wasteland for the commercial fish packers. He and others are working to ensure that the days of the decimation of Alaska’s great fisheries, fur industry and extraction of minerals by outside interests – interests that left behind the abandoned Kennecott Copper Mine when the worldwide copper prices plummeted in the 1920s – will not happen again:

Alaska’s tradition of “boom and bust” communities is due in no small measure to the hard, cold fact that mineral development was solely for the purpose of exploitation with no concern for permanent and legitimate growth. Alaska’s once-great fisheries industry is traceable in great degree to this same attitude with its concept of ruthless plundering of a great natural resource without regard to the welfare of the mass of average citizens who make their living from the sea …

Constitutional delegate Vic Fischer sits, listening with rapt attention, taking to heart the call to protect Alaska’s resources. He would later serve on the committee that drafted the final language of the Alaska Constitution. Most important among its provisions, Article VIII would command future leaders to “provide for the utilization, development and conservation of all natural resources belonging to the State, including land and waters, for the maximum benefit of its people”. Little did he or the other delegates know that Bartlett’s prediction – that in 50 years these bold principles would be put to the test – would come to pass in the Bristol Bay region.

The Bristol Bay Region
The Bristol Bay region of south-western Alaska is dominated by some of the strongest forces in nature. Seven major river systems feed into the bay, which opens out into the vast Pacific Ocean. It is bordered on its southern side by a ring of active volcanoes, part of the massive Alaska Range, which runs from the Alaska Peninsula hundreds of miles into the interior of Alaska. Earthquakes are frequent in the region, caused by the slipping of numerous fault lines and the rumblings of Mt Iliamna, Mt Redoubt, Mt Augustine and other massive volcanoes. It is also home to Wood-Tikchik State Park, the largest state park in the United States, as well as Katmai National Park and Preserve, and Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, which boast dense brown bear populations and massive salmon runs.

The region provides approximately 50% of all seafood consumed in the United States and produces half of the world’s sockeye salmon supply. Lake Iliamna, which is the headwaters for the Kvichak River, hosts the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. Commercial fishing is a principal engine of the regional economy, providing 75% of the seasonal jobs (commercial fishing is by its very nature a seasonal venture) and steady income to residents of the area, bringing in $234 million in annual revenue to the region.

But the most important thing to know about the Bristol Bay regional economy is that it is a mixed-cash economy. Approximately 7500 people live in the Bristol Bay region, among whom 66% are Alaska Native. Unlike what most people may be accustomed to, where you rely exclusively on a cash income, most of the residents of Bristol Bay live what the Alaska and United States governments refer to as a “subsistence” lifestyle.

Residents spend their entire year heading out into the waters and lands of the Bristol Bay region, hunting, gathering and fishing to bring in food, to bring in materials for crafts for trade and sale, to provide materials (such as those for costumes) for important cultural events like dances and potlatches (gift-giving festivals) or other celebrations. People in the region eat wild plants, berries, bird eggs, migratory birds, caribou, moose, bear, salmon and a variety of other resident fish. Salmon make up the largest share of the food and account for over half of all harvest.

This way of life goes far beyond what the land can provide. It connects people through activities, lessons, stories, journeys and language with a land that has gone mostly undisturbed through time, providing a rich bounty.

For the people of the Bristol Bay region, whether Aleut, Dena’ina, Yup’ik, Aleutiq or non-Native, there is a broad, multi-generational connection to the land passed down for thousands of years through teachings, traditions, ceremonies, and even life and death. Whether harvesting salmon from a set net site or hunting caribou in the midst of winter, the people of the region believe in only taking what you need to survive – as well as for clothing, ceremonies, shelter and dancing – until the next harvest season. And once they have taken what they need for their own families, they make sure that the elders or infirm of the community are taken care of as well.

History of the Pebble Exploration
Thirty-two years after the 1956 conclusion of the Alaska Constitutional Convention, Teck Cominco, a Canadian mining company using the name Cominco Alaska Exploration, filed its first Alaska Placer Mining Application with the Alaskan Government to receive permission to conduct exploratory drilling on mineral claims. Teck Cominco was seeking to explore the area near the headwaters of the Upper Talarik Creek, which flows into Lake Iliamna and the Kvichak River, and the north fork of the Koktuli River, which feeds eventually into the Nushagak River. Once it started, Teck Cominco proceeded to drill an average of 20–30 holes per season over the next decade, relatively unnoticed by the public.

In 2001, Canadian firm Northern Dynasty acquired Teck Cominco’s claims and greatly increased exploration efforts. In 2004, Northern Dynasty announced its discovery of a “behemoth” gold and copper deposit.

Then, in 2007, the British firm of Anglo-American joined forces with Northern Dynasty to form the Pebble Partnership. By the end of 2010, the exploration of the Pebble deposit had bored approximately 1300 drill holes in the area, also producing associated helicopter and drill rig usage, and sump pits for the dumping of exploration waste at each bore hole, all scattered over several square miles of otherwise virgin public land.

In 2012, the Pebble Partnership is on the verge of finally submitting its application to state officials to develop the Pebble Mine.

The Benefits of Pebble Mine
The Pebble Partnership steadfastly maintains that it can responsibly develop the mine, that it can produce its metals products without harming the salmon fishery. Jason Brune, public affairs manager for Anglo-American (US), notes that Anglo-American’s specific record of responsible practices and recent improvements in mining technology show that Pebble can be developed responsibly.

One of the reasons why people in the region support it, and one of the things the Pebble Partnership touts about the mine development, is the potential for long-term, year-round jobs in the region. Residents in the village of Iliamna typically favour the development as Iliamna Natives Limited, the village Native corporation, has enjoyed lucrative contracts during the exploration phase of the mine for providing logistical support to the Pebble Partnership. Owners of lodges and other businesses in the Iliamna area, who have provided many services over the years to the Pebble effort, also greatly support the project, seeing it is an opportunity for an economic boom in the region.

The potential wealth for Northern Dynasty and Anglo-American shareholders and investors is staggering. Early estimates suggest that the deposit contains as much as 26.5 million ounces of gold and 16.5 billion pounds of copper.

Concerns about the Pebble Mine
The Pebble Mine as designed by Northern Dynasty will be one of the largest gold and copper mines in the world, and certainly the largest in North America. One portion of the development (the Pebble West deposit) would be a large open pit mine while the rest (the Pebble East deposit) would be underground.

Mining operations would consume massive amounts of water from the headwaters of two of the seven main river systems in the Bristol Bay region. The estimated 35 billion gallons of water required by Pebble annually would be three times greater than that required by Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage (population 275,000), and nearly 30 times greater than the zinc-producing Red Dog Mine in the north-western Arctic region of Alaska. Excavating the scattered deposits and extracting usable minerals from the predominantly low-grade ore would generate billions of tonnes of waste rock and tailings, which when mixed with water and oxygen create the conditions for acid rock drainage.

The Pebble Partnership estimates it would operate the mine for 50–80 years. During that time, the mine would utilise two tailings ponds to handle billions of tonnes of waste rock, one of which would replace the existing Frying Pan Lake. Tailings ponds are designed to minimise the chemical reaction that creates acid rock drainage by submerging metal-sulfide rock in water to minimise its interaction with air.

Under typical mine closure plans, mines that use tailings ponds are designed to leave a permanent impact on the land – tailings ponds by their very nature can never be fully remediated. To avoid overflow of the tailings pond as a result of rainfall and snowmelt, a mine must constantly release treated tailings water downstream. Often, the water that is discharged exceeds safe water quality and must be diluted by the use of “mixing zones” – areas downstream where tributaries feed into the main stream and dilute the contaminants in the water. In the case of Pebble, the water from the larger tailings pond would be discharged into the south fork of the Koktuli River at the headwaters of the Nushagak River, one of the main components of the Bristol Bay watershed. Or, it could be discharged down Upper Talarik Creek, which feeds into Lake Iliamna.

The area where Pebble Mine’s treated tailings water would be discharged is an extensively hydrologically connected area with countless documented interactions between surface waters and ground water. Amidst all of this interconnected water, sockeye salmon swim by the millions to spawn every year, including the Nushagak River and Kvichak River drainages that would be directly downstream of the mine. The interaction of the surface and the ground waters, producing highly oxygenated gravels for maturing eggs, make this region prime salmon habitat. But the parameters that make prime habitat are narrow, making salmon very susceptible to any changes in water quality, water quantity, physical habitat structure, food supply, water flow regimes or fish passage. Any changes in these factors could adversely impact the productivity of the fishery.

The very nature of metal-sulfide hard rock mining guarantees that the water chemistry of the region will be altered in some way. From the constant discharge downstream of treated tailings pond water to the likely seeping of acid rock drainage from the surface to ground water, to where it will likely mix with surface waters, there are plenty of opportunities for the water chemistry to be altered as part of regular operations. Research conducted in the region during the exploration phase suggests that certain adverse changes are already under way.

The Pebble Mine would be located in an area adjacent to several active volcanoes in the Alaska Range. This ties into one of the frequently cited concerns about the location of the mine, which is the vulnerability of the earthen dam. At an estimated 200 metres in height, such a dam would be susceptible to damage or destruction by an earthquake. Such failure would lead to a catastrophic release of toxic material downstream.

Additionally, hard rock mining by its very nature is a boom-and-bust industry, wreaking havoc on regional economies and leaving behind a scarred, tainted landscape. A 2006 study conducted by James R. Kuipers and Ann S. Maest found that the impact on water quality is typically much worse than what was predicted by the mine developer.

Opposition to the Mine
The proposed Pebble Mine is very controversial in Alaska. A 2009 survey showed that 71% of the area’s residents are opposed to developing the mine. Another recent poll revealed that 66% of Alaskans and 66% of Americans are against development of the mine. The Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC), the corporation for Native Alaskans that serves the Native residents of the Bristol Bay region, has adopted a proposal in opposition to the mine – 81% of its shareholders are against development of the mine. While BBNC supports resource development (it emphasises “responsible development” as part of its mission), it has stated that the Pebble Mine could not be developed in a way that does not harm other resources and users.

Opposition to the mine is so strong that Anglo-American issued an investment advisory to its constituents, noting: “The Pebble project is opposed by a politically powerful coalition of diverse interests who have the support of a large segment of the Alaskan electorate”.

The best way to understand the opposition to the mine is through the stories of people involved in the issues. Vic Fischer, one of only two surviving delegates to the Alaska Constitutional Convention, opposes the way the state has handled the Pebble development because he believes it stands contrary to the dictates of the Alaska Constitution itself. Noting that he was “acutely aware of [his] responsibility to future generations with respect to Alaska’s resources,” he said that the state’s current policy of allowing mineral development without question “is contrary to the framers’ intent” when they drafted Article VIII, the Natural Resources provision of the Alaska Constitution.

Many who oppose the development of the Pebble Mine speak of how its development will impact their way of life. Bella Hammond, widow of one of Alaska’s most revered governors, Jay Hammond, stresses the importance of fish as a renewable resource. While the fish may come back decade after decade and provide a reliable food source and revenue, “we do not know how long mining will last”. Violet Willson, a longtime resident of Naknek, has examined the historical impacts of large-scale hard rock mines and is greatly concerned that the chemicals discharged into the soil and waters of the region will impact the subsistence fishing of her 22 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren, as well as generations to come. Luki Akelkok Sr of Ekwok, who has hunted caribou, moose and ducks on the Nushagak watershed, has already noticed impacts to wildlife from the Pebble exploration, and fears increased impacts if a mine is developed. Rick Delkittie, the Tribal President for the Village of Nondalton, which would be located only nine miles from the mine, touts the riches of the land and notes that his people were never concerned about clean water and the abundance of fish and wildlife until the mine was proposed.

Such stories are virtually countless in a region where so many people rely so much on the land and waters for their way of life.

Commercial fishing, tourism and recreational fishing proponents in the region also vastly oppose the mine. Everett Thompson of Nakek, skipper of F/V Chulyen, is one of many commercial fishing skippers who steadfastly oppose the mine even though he was neutral about it earlier. Another $100 million floods into the region through remote sport fishing lodges that provide high-end clients with angling adventures involving world-class rainbow trout and a variety of salmon, as well as wildlife viewing and sport hunting.

Rick Delkittie, the Tribal President for the Village of Nondalton
Rick Delkittie, the Tribal President for the Village of Nondalton, looks out across a cold, frozen landscape in the deep of winter on Six Mile Lake near the village. Credit: Carl Johnson

A Question of Values
The development of the proposed Pebble Mine classically represents an ever-increasing dilemma, a clash between the values of conservation and development. While the debate over Pebble is often couched in terms of gold/copper versus fish, in reality this is a debate about what relationship people have to the land and how the land should be used.

For the Pebble Partnership, the relationship began with a corporate merger in 2007 and continues with the Pebble Partnership’s efforts to proceed with developing its claims, producing metals required by the marketplace and producing wealth for its shareholders. The worldwide economy requires more of the metals that the Pebble Mine can provide. Whether jewellery, the latest iPad, your home or your car, metals are a necessary part of all aspects of modern life. Metals are also a finite resource, limited to the reach of machinery and the extent of the deposit holding them.

Opponents of the Pebble Mine believe that the promises of jobs and economic opportunity from the mine are not worth the risk of sacrificing a way of life that has sustained the region for millennia. For them, wealth is not measured in copper, gold or modern conveniences; rather, it comes from the land and its resources, from the fish, the moose and berries, and permeates all aspects of daily life.

Given that the two views of the land and its use are so vastly different, the decision whether to develop the mine will need to be based on rational, scientific, and values-based considerations. But which values will prevail? That is the question that faces Alaska’s future.