Giant Strip Mine Threatens Alaska’s Iconic Bristol Bay

Pick the worst place on the planet for a giant strip mine, in the heart of America’s wildest and most productive ecosystem. That’s exactly where one is planned.

What possibly could unite these diverse and in some cases adversarial players in outrage and action: 700 businesses; 700 hunting and angling groups; 77 commercial fishing groups; 200 chefs and restaurant owners; the National Council of Churches, representing 45 million people; major newspapers; leading jewelry retailers; and ultra-conservative legislators?

It would be a plan to gouge and hack the Bristol Bay watershed of southwest Alaska with the continent’s biggest strip mine.

A vestige of what America used to be survives here. The region is the size of Ohio, with a population of 7,500. It is changeless and timeless, laced by pristine rivers that rush and dawdle through forests never logged and un-scarred tundra that alternately blazes with wildflowers and glistens with snow. There are no access roads. You enter by plane or helicopter, threading between jagged, ice-clad peaks. The vastness and wildness start to sink in after you’ve flown for, say, two hours and seen no hint of human defilement.

Everything about Bristol Bay takes someone’s breath away. For me it’s the beauty, the fishing, and especially the wildlife. For folks like John Shively, CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership, it’s the $500 billion worth of copper, gold, and molybdenum in the “Pebble Deposit” under the headwaters of the world’s two most productive salmon rivers—the Kvichak and the Nushagak.

Speak Up!

Learn more: read more about efforts to save Bristol Bay. Spread the word: Use Facebook and Twitter to alert friends and family to this important issue. Take action: Let the EPA know that you want the agency to follow up on its assessment and reject mining permits in Bristol Bay by writing; dine at restaurants that serve Bristol Bay’s wild salmon; and buy jewelry from companies that oppose the mine.

All of North America’s five species of Pacific salmon and their cousins, steelhead trout, thrive in Bristol Bay’s fresh and saltwater, and all are imperiled in the contiguous states. The region sustains earth’s biggest sockeye salmon population and produces half of all global salmon sales, bringing in $310 million annually to Alaska. That resource can last forever if the state doesn’t swap it for a quick fix of finite metals.

The media focuses almost entirely on the threat to people who depend on salmon, ignoring the threat to the ecosystem that also depends on them. For much of my adult life I’ve watched how that ecosystem works. Memories of Alaska blend together, so I can’t tell you the year I made the following observation. Nor can I tell you what Nushagak tributary I was on because it doesn’t have a name. I may have been the first human to wade it. Grizzlies were fishing with me, and before every bend I yelled “Yogi,” because you never want to take one by surprise. The woods were fragrant with willow, moss, forest duff, and the sweet-sour scent of sun-dried salmon parts. A gray catbird lookalike stepped from a rock into the flow and strutted underneath the water. It was an American dipper, our only aquatic songbird, and it was feasting on caddis larvae.

The larvae, in turn, were feasting on sunken salmon carcasses. All Pacific salmon die after spawning, infusing otherwise sterile freshwater with ocean nutrients that sustain a vast web of life, including their offspring until they transform to salt-tolerant “smolts” and filter tail-first to the rich Pacific. 

Scarlet backs in the air, sockeye salmon rippled over gravel bars in shoals 50 feet long. Fresh from the sea and the color of polished chrome, they are spectacular game fish. Now, ravaged by fungus because energy had been diverted from their skin, muscles, and nerves to their reproductive organs, they were basically swimming gonads. In a few days they’d all be dead. 

Behind them, sucking in their eggs and occasionally my barbless egg-pattern fly, were grayling (whitefish relatives with flaglike dorsal fins flecked with neon blue), rainbow trout (named for the pink stripes on their speckled flanks), Dolly Varden trout (with bellies the color of an Alaskan sunset and named for the gaudily dressed character in Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge), and Arctic char (which few non-biologists can distinguish from dollies).

These freshwater fish are fading from most of their U.S. range but doing fine in Bristol Bay. They’re vital parts of the ecosystem in their own right. A few years earlier, on Bristol Bay’s Goodnews River, I’d watched huge rainbows tearing apart dead salmon rolling along the bottom. I caught them on sinking flies tied to resemble chunks of salmon flesh—this to the horror of visiting Brits who were expecting to use dry flies.

Salmon, living and dead, fuel Bristol Bay’s ecosystem. The storm of protein from the sea directly or indirectly feeds virtually everything that swims, flies, crawls, or walks in and near fresh and saltwater and far inland.


But this grand energy flow may soon be short-circuited. Since 2007 the Pebble Limited Partnership—a coupling of London-based Anglo American and Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty—has sought to strip-mine the Pebble Deposit, constructing an open pit, tailings impoundments, and associated disruptions that eventually could cover 186 square miles, an area 20 times the size of all existing Alaska mines combined. The pit, larger by far than any other in North America, would be a mile deep (about the depth of the Grand Canyon) and two to three miles wide. The mine would use three times more water than Anchorage and almost as much electricity.

The first impoundment would be created by the biggest dam ever constructed—an artificial mountain wedged between two real ones. That impoundment and others, built as mining progressed with dams dwarfing Grand Coulee, would hold back 10 billion tons of sulfide waste—a witch’s brew of sulfuric acid, mercury, arsenic, lead, zinc, cadmium, and other poisons. There’s no half-life for sulfide waste, so it would have to be contained forever. 

Pebble guarantees that it can effect this miracle, but little of its mountain of data is useful, or even decipherable. For example, spokespeople for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game report that Pebble documents are “virtually impossible to review” and that meetings with Pebble are “a waste of our time.” Bob Waldrop, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, says: “We’ve been waiting to get information from Pebble for years. Finally they coughed up 20,000 pages of material—most unintelligible, the rest a regurgitation of what’s in the literature.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries biologists have complained to the EPA that they repeatedly get “ignored” when they ask Pebble for information.

Pebble’s tailing ponds would be unlined, and the earth around the deposit is so porous there’s a free exchange of groundwater between multiple river systems. As if this weren’t enough, the deposit lies within the Pacific Ring of Fire, a volatile seismic zone beset by earthquakes. According to research cited by the EPA, a tailings dam fails somewhere on the planet every seven months. 

At risk, warns Audubon Alaska’s executive director, Nils Warnock, are 27 globally Important Bird Areas vital to such species as king eiders, Steller’s eiders, Pacific brant, emperor geese, black-legged kittiwakes, horned puffins, common murres, rock sandpipers, dunlins, and marbled godwits.

Within the area influenced by Bristol Bay’s watershed and threatened by the mine are: two national parks; four national wildlife refuges, including Izembek; a national monument; a state park; eight state-protected areas; five critical-habitat areas; two game refuges; a state wildlife sanctuary; three federal Steller’s eider critical habitat units; two Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network sites; and at least eight other sites of equal importance to shorebirds.

Nearly every emperor goose on earth uses the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in spring. Close to the entire Pacific brant population uses the Izembek Lagoon area in spring and fall. And about 25,000 of the western population of black scoters breed in the Bristol Bay lowlands.

“Pebble Mine would be a ticking time bomb for Alaska’s globally important salmon and waterbird populations,” says Warnock. “It would be like living in a house with a huge toxic acid pool as its roof. It is not worth the risk.”

But Shively pooh-poohs such talk. Storing 10 billion tons of toxic waste forever won’t be a problem, he avers, because it’s merely “an engineering issue.”

I don’t share his faith in engineers, having witnessed too many of their spectacular failures—“flood control” on the Mississippi, for example, coal-sludge “containment” in the Appalachians, coal-ash “containment” in Montana, “fish-passage” on the Columbia River system, oil extraction in the Gulf of Mexico, and water “management” in the Everglades.

Nor is Shively’s faith in engineers shared by Bristol Bay residents. I asked Waldrop if the commercial fishermen he represents are worried. “Not worried,” he replied. “Scared to death. There’s no way Pebble can contain its effluvia in perpetuity. Bristol Bay people are said to be impoverished, but they don’t feel impoverished. You can’t pay a mortgage with a dead moose, but you can sure live well on it. And we underplay ongoing commercial activities. Just the salmon provide 9,600 full-time jobs.” 

Pebble claims that when the mine is operational it will employ 1,000.


Many of Alaska’s elected officials were propelled to office by the mining industry. The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), basically a development agency, has rarely if ever denied a major mine permit. Mining companies applying for major projects in Alaska are required to pay the salaries and overhead costs of the DNR employees who process their permits. 

So I wasn’t surprised to hear this from a commercial fisherman named Joseph Chythlook, a Yup’ik of the Aleknagik tribe who chairs the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the region’s largest private landowner: “The state seems in development mode. They think most of the noise is coming from outside environmentalists. They listen to a small minority of folks. I don’t think we’re being heard.”

The only hope of area residents was the EPA, which under the Clean Water Act has authority to nix the mine. Chythlook’s corporation and nine federally recognized tribes asked it to assess how a giant strip mine would affect salmon.

The assessment, 15 months in the making and released last May, lambastes the project, reporting that even if everything worked perfectly forever (an impossibility), there would be major damage to fish and wildlife. But it also reports that the failure of pipelines transporting toxic mining concentrate across 30 salmon rivers and along Alaska’s biggest lake—Iliamna—can be “expected.” Most of the EPA’s data, unlike Pebble’s, have been peer reviewed by independent scientists.

“It’s a good document,” says Tim Bristol, Trout Unlimited’s Alaska Program director. “It was a huge public service, because all we had before were giant volumes of data from Pebble without context. People had been completely overwhelmed and bewildered, and that was Pebble’s goal.”

But no sooner had the EPA released its document than Pebble and its allies screamed about being denied “due process.” They had been denied nothing. They hadn’t been regulated; the EPA had merely reported facts they didn’t want the public to know. Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), then chair of the Committee on Oversight, went so far as to accuse the agency of trying “to preemptively veto permits.” Alaska governor Sean Parnell accused it of “federal overreach.” Pebble called the document “rushed,” “premature,” and “fundamentally flawed.” And it ordered, controlled, and paid for reams of alleged science from consultants that supposedly give the lie to all the independent research cited by the EPA. In a failed effort to prove that the EPA had stolen material from Trout Unlimited and the Natural Resources Defense Council, Pebble even paid Ecofish Research to use “plagiarism software.”

Pebble and its hired EPA trashers express a minority opinion. Of about 204,000 comments the EPA received from around the nation, 200,000 (98 percent) approve of the document.


What the EPA didn’t look at, because it wasn’t asked to, was damage to Bristol Bay’s nature and quality. The area would be converted from a remote wildlife sanctuary to an industrial park complete with roads, power plants, power lines, sewage-treatment plants, a deepwater port, and, at its heart, a sprawling toxic-waste storage facility. Once all that was in place seven other mining companies, with combined leases that would dwarf Pebble’s footprint, would flock in.

The flow of humans would harm fish and wildlife at least as much as the flow of poisons. Thomas Quinn of the University of Washington, a professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences who has studied Bristol Bay salmon for 25 years, offers this: “The roads would drain sediments into streams. Erosion under culverts would block fish passage. The huge human presence would include legal and illegal fishing and major impacts on subsistence. The whole region would change radically. . . . At present you can catch nearly 50 percent of the salmon every year and the system will keep producing. It’s a biological perpetual-motion machine, free money and free food forever. From that point of view, if you were to pick the worst place in the world for this kind of mine, it would be right where they’ve got it.”

Pebble’s assurances fail to convince, and not just because its studies are nonsensical and warmed over. Both partners—Anglo American and Northern Dynasty—have a history of breaking promises and making untruthful statements. 

Because Upper Talarik Creek contains some of the most sensitive trout and salmon habitat in the region, Northern Dynasty promised to stay away from it. “Fish come first,” it chanted. It then applied for permission to dry the creek up by draining it into the tailings impoundment. And it drilled test holes in the watershed, fouling groundwater with toxic drilling mud.

Pebble claims that it has yet to file a plan and that, therefore, no one should speculate on dangers. But in order to apply for Talarik Creek water rights, Northern Dynasty needed a plan, and it applied in 2006.

Unlike other states, Alaska protects streams only if it finds fish in them. And, conveniently for Pebble, it rarely looks. So for a while no one could refute Pebble when it proclaimed that streams around the mine site are essentially worthless to salmon because they “typically freeze solid during the winter.”

But then Carol Ann Woody, a Ph.D. research scientist who left the U.S. Geological Survey in 2006 to start her own fisheries consulting business, procured funding from The Nature Conservancy and started her own survey. She told me this: “Pebble was making claims I knew weren’t true. I’ve worked that area since 1991, and those streams do not freeze solid; I have photos in the dead of winter—sub-zero temperatures for weeks—where you see open, flowing water. It’s groundwater, and that’s essential salmon habitat.”

Woody and her team have surveyed 105 streams in and around the proposed mine site, documenting salmon in 75 percent and trout, char, and other native fish in 98 percent. They’ve even found salmon directly on top of the deposit. “Pebble hates that there are fish there,” says Trout Unlimited’s Bristol. “They’re trying to get Woody’s findings thrown out.”

“Good luck with that,” says Woody. “We’ve got photos and GPS coordinates.”

Anglo American has consistently promised not to mine the deposit without regional support. In 2011 residents of Bristol Bay’s Lake and Peninsula Borough, which covers the mine site, voted for a “Save Our Salmon” initiative. Pebble is challenging the vote in court. The Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the largest private landowner in the region, voted overwhelmingly to oppose the mine. Now 80 percent of all Bristol Bay residents are opposed. But Pebble presses on. 

“Every time we go to London we tell Anglo American’s chief executive, Cynthia Carroll, ‘Hold to your promise,’ ” says Kim Williams of the Curyung tribe, who directs Nunamta Aulukestai (Yup’ik for “Caretakers of the Land”), a group of Bristol Bay village corporations, tribes, and a regional corporation. “What part of no is not convincing enough for you?’ The promises keep changing. Northern Dynasty said, ‘There will be no net loss of fish.’ Each company that comes along has a new promise.”

I asked Williams about the 20 percent of Bristol Bay residents who don’t oppose the mine. Not opposing and favoring are two different things, she explained. “In Newhalen we asked people to sign the Pebble [no mine] Pledge, and we got only six signatures. Although they want salmon forever, one told us: ‘My children work for Pebble, and I can’t support the pledge.’ ”


One of the more remarkable aspects of the Pebble issue is not the number of mine promoters stumping for it but the number trying to stop it. Until Northern Dynasty went after the Pebble Deposit, Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), who died in 2010, never saw a mine he didn’t love. So consistently did he vote for slapdash resource extraction that the League of Conservation Voters named him to its “Dirty Dozen List.” Yet Stevens was death on Pebble. “I just don’t like it,” he declared, noting that the enormous salmon resource shouldn’t be “tampered with.”

Even more telling is the current opposition of Rick Halford, former president of the Alaska state senate and a self-proclaimed “redneck Republican.” In his 24 years as a state legislator he helped write many of Alaska’s permissive mining laws. He never opposed a mine—until Pebble. Now he’s leading the opposition. “At first I looked to see if there was a way to make it work,” he told me. “Finally I came to comprehend the size; it is beyond imagination. You could put all the mines in Alaska history just in the pit part, and it would be two-thirds to three-quarters empty. I asked an engineer how long 10 billion tons of toxic tailings would be if it were in a column 1,000 feet wide and 1,000 feet high. He came back with a calculation of 29 to 30 miles. The toxic waste has to be managed in perpetuity, and that scares me. I don’t think we have a right to do anything to land and water that’s perpetual.” 

I asked Halford if, as arguably Alaska’s most ardent and influential mine proponent, he has come under fire from his pals in the industry. “It’s interesting,” he replied. “Some old friends are critical, but others wish Pebble would go away. The conflict casts a shadow over smaller, less controversial mines. They tell me, ‘You’re right. We can’t say that in our organization.’ To friends angry with me I say, ‘I’ve only fallen off the wagon once.’ ”


What are the chances that Bristol Bay’s beauty, wildness, and much of its fish and wildlife won’t be destroyed? Considering Alaska’s traditional development-at-any-cost mindset, probably not great, but certainly better than they were even a year ago. For one thing, it’s hard to think that the EPA would kick such a project from hell to breakfast and then (provided it’s still part of an Obama administration) instruct its regulators to sit on their hands. For another, the American public is increasingly engaged.

About 80 percent of global gold production goes to jewelry, something America needs less than its natural crown jewels. Accordingly, Tiffany, Zales, and 58 other jewelry retailers have vowed to boycott Pebble gold by signing a “No Pebble Pledge.” Anisa Costa, president of the Tiffany & Co. Foundation, offers this: “We strongly believe Bristol Bay to be one of the world’s most pristine landscapes, home to a wild and productive salmon fishery which supports the ecosystem and the native communities around it. The proposed Pebble mine, with its inherent risks, would have a devastating long-term impact. . . . We are proud to sign the Bristol Bay Protection Pledge and urge other U.S. jewelers to do so.”

Finally, even the Pebble Partnership is conflicted. Northern Dynasty has never developed a mine. Instead it mines the stock market, snapping up claims and seducing buyers with endless hype about the richness of deposits. Anglo American, a global mining giant, is wary of hype because it fuels opposition. Before Pebble Partnership’s Northern Dynasty landed Anglo American as a partner, it landed another global mining giant—Rio Tinto, which owns 20 percent of Northern Dynasty. Rio Tinto studied the dangers and backed away. Now it opposes the project. In April 2012 CEO Tom Albanese opined that, based on environmental concerns, “an open pit mine is not the way to go.”

Trout Unlimited’s Tim Bristol declares: “This is the largest development project in Alaska since oil was discovered on the North Slope. If we let it happen, nothing is safe. It is our crossroads.”

“If people know what’s going on, I don’t believe this mine will be permitted,” adds Rick Halford. “It’s an affront to the national conscience.” 

If you have not seen Bristol Bay, do so soon. And talk to Alaskans who advocate the mine. When it comes to learning about what it’s like to live with “affronts to the national conscience,” Americans who inhabit our least spoiled state can have no better educators than those who live to their south.


Speak Up!

Learn more: read more about efforts to save Bristol Bay. Spread the word: Use Facebook and Twitter to alert friends and family to this important issue. Take action: Let the EPA know that you want the agency to follow up on its assessment and reject mining permits in Bristol Bay by writing; dine at restaurants that serve Bristol Bay’s wild salmon; and buy jewelry from companies that oppose the mine.