There’s trouble in paradise. Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska is facing an unprecedented threat from a proposed open-pit gold and copper mine. DAVE APLIN warns that if permitted, the Pebble Mine would permanently compromise Bristol Bay’s intact ecosystem, abundant wildlife, fish-fuelled economy and bustling local communities.
BRISTOL BAY is a place that inspires superlatives. It is one of the world’s remaining salmon strong- holds—more than 60 million sockeye returned to its rivers and streams to complete their epic lifecycle last year alone. Their annual return supports more than 1,400 jobs, a sustainable commercial fishing economy worth $1.5 billion a year, and centuries-old Indigenous cultures. The salmon also feed beluga whales, bald eagles and the largest concentration of brown bears on the planet. They provide the nutrients that fertilize the willows and grasses upon which moose and caribou depend.
It is safe to say that Bristol Bay is like nowhere else on Earth. The problem is: its sustainable natural riches lie atop mineral riches—vast low-grade copper and gold ore deposits.
It’s been 30 years since the Pebble deposit was first discovered by a Canadian mining company and nearly 20 since another Canadian firm, Northern Dynasty Minerals, acquired the claim. Since the discovery, the spectre of the Pebble Mine has remained a contentious issue, especially for the commercial fishermen, sportfishing lodge owners and Alaska Natives who depend on clean water and healthy salmon for their livelihoods and subsistence harvests. Today, nearly 80 per cent of area residents and the majority of Alaskans oppose the mine.
A PROJECT RIFE WITH RISKS
Over the past two decades, four major mining companies joined Northern Dynasty to become what is called the Pebble Limited Partnership. All four have since retreated from a project that promises major challenges that include its remote location, low-grade ore quality and a laundry list of risks to Bristol Bay’s intact environment—including the destruction of salmon habitat and the potential for the release of acid mine waste into the region’s rivers and streams.
In spite of these risks, Northern Dynasty, the sole remaining Pebble partner, has persisted. In 2011, local tribes joined commercial fishermen in petitioning the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to step in. In response, the EPA initiated a three-year scientific review to assess the potential impacts of the mine on the region’s environment, economy and cultures. The study’s peer-reviewed findings led the EPA to conclude that the mine would substantially affect Bristol Bay’s freshwater and fisheries resources, and it moved to protect the region.
However, a legal challenge to the EPA’s process stalled the implementation of those protections until 2017. That year, a new federal administration set aside the EPA findings and green-lighted Pebble’s permit application. Since then, the US Army Corps of Engi- neers has pursued a highly accelerated permitting process and aims to complete the process by summer of 2020.
A fish-fueled economy
Fisherman with salmon. Bristol Bay, Alaska.
©Chris Ford, Creative Commons, Flickr.com
Bristol Bay fishing boats at Dillingham.
©Paul Colangelo / WWF-US
Brown bears hunt for salmon at Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska.
©Christoph Strässler, Creative Commons, Flickr.com
THE FIGHT TO PROTECT BRISTOL BAY
If not stopped, Pebble Mine would be allowed to develop the first 1.5 billion tons of its nearly 11 billion ton deposit. If permitted, the mine would run continuously for 24 years. And, like the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent flap, permitting Pebble would set the stage for future expansion into nearby areas and could jump-start the development of a mining district in Bristol Bay.
In response, a coalition of Indigenous groups, commercial and sportfishing interests, tourism providers and non- governmental organizations, including WWF, have banded together to protect Bristol Bay. WWF and others have retained scientists and economists to review the rushed and incomplete Draft Environmental Impact statement released by the Corps of Engineer.
Grassroots and grass-top activists are working to harness the support of Alaskans to influence elected officials and agency professionals to throw out the flawed process and start over. At times, it appears to be an uphill struggle as political leaders at the state and federal levels embrace extractive industries over sustainable development. But it’s a battle that thousands of Alaskans and many more people around the world are willing to fight.
Many locations around the Arctic face similar challenges in changing the meth- ods we use to calculate value and wealth. The controversy that swirls around the Pebble project illustrates the global need to mainstream the understanding and acceptance of factoring ecosystem services into decision-making and financial systems. The future of Bristol Bay and many other irreplaceable Arctic jewels depends on successfully navigating that change.
WWF's US office in Anchorage works on Arctic issues across Alaska, and on conservation challenges that cross borders.
WWF works with communities throughout the Arctic to help them deal with the effects of climate change, support research, and bring northern stories to a global audience.