Pebble Mine: A Pebble Whose Ripples Will Never Go Away by George Krumm originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Fish Alaska.
A few years ago, the Pebble Mine Project appeared to be dead. However, it’s been resurrected, quickly and fairly quietly, in an attempt to rush the permitting process through before the public has much of a chance to weigh in on it.
The Bristol Bay region of western Alaska is the most magnificent salmon producer, and one of the few remaining regions in which wild trout and salmon thrive, in the entire continent of North America. The primary reason is simple: We humans have not yet messed up the habitat. But that doesn’t mean we won’t. This is a call to action.
The Pebble Mine project, as proposed in the current Army Corps of Engineers Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), most surely will, at some point in time, cause permanent, irreparable damage to this area. What’s more, this damage will likely affect salmonids first and most. Before I get into some of the reasons, understand that I’m not anti-mining or anti-development. I fully understand and support the need to extract resources.
Pebble Mine is dangerous and irresponsible
However, I am opposed to this particular mine, in this particular place, and the WAY in which the project is proposed to be done. A huge open-pit mine and large tailings lakes contained only by earthen dams, in earthquake country no less, and located at the headwaters of the state’s most pristine salmonid watersheds spell eventual disaster for those watersheds, and set a dangerous, irresponsible precedent for the future. If this project is allowed to go forward as currently planned, other equally dangerous, irresponsible projects are sure to follow.
Others share my view. “Bristol Bay’s world-class salmon runs and fishing deserve the highest standards of review, but that is not what we’re being given,” said Nelli Williams, Alaska Director of Trout Unlimited. “A giant mine proposal slated for the heart of salmon country should never have advanced this far at all and is overwhelmingly opposed by Alaskans. Fishermen and friends of Bristol Bay across the state and country have tracked Pebble’s steps toward mining permits and are demanding more from the permitting agency and our elected decision makers.”
Some of the most glaring shortfalls of the current proposal are as follows:
The current proposal covers a fraction of the total ore deposit, meaning only a fraction of the risk is being analyzed. Meanwhile, Pebble has clear and obvious plans to expand. Pebble’s initial plan would permanently destroy nearly 4,000 acres of wetlands and more than 80 miles of streams in their 14-square-mile footprint, introducing harmful metals, changing and in some cases decreasing water flow, etc. The impacts would be massive, and even more so when they begin their attempt to expand beyond the currently proposed footprint.
The Army Corps of Engineers asked Pebble to clarify 160 items about their plan, three of which related to structural engineering and water management still have not been answered. Usually, failing to respond to requests like this about Pebble’s planned operations halts the process, but the Corps has decided to advance the process anyway. This is dangerous and irresponsible.
Potential for catastrophic tailings dam failure is not planned for, even though the wastewater it would need to hold back is toxic to the fishery. What’s more, it is very common for toxic tailings to end up flowing into watersheds despite efforts to prevent it. A clear but much smaller-than-Pebble example would be the Berkeley Pit mine in Butte, Montana. Release and leaching of toxic tailings into the tributary headwaters of the Clark’s Fork River have caused numerous problems over the years, and the open-pit mine and tailings ponds for that mine eventually became an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site. What’s more, groundwater contamination is likely; possibly already occurring. The damage has not been fully mitigated even though the mine was shut down in 1982, and probably never will be despite science’s best efforts.
Ignoring scoping comments, including outdated/insufficient science, and pushing ahead despite massive, ongoing opposition; these are scary prospects.
Additionally, the DEIS fails to acknowledge the value of the Bristol Bay sport fishery:
- $61 million annual economic contributions.
- Close to 1,000 full and part-time jobs are provided by the sport fishery alone. Commercial fishing adds another 14,000 (Pebble says it will provide around 1,000 jobs).
- The DEIS includes a section on potential impacts to recreation and sportfishing (DEIS at 3.5-1 to 3.5-16, and 3.6-26 to 3.6-34.). However, this section provides a very cursory accounting of existing recreation activities in the region and is generally dismissive of recreation due to the remote and primitive nature of the region.
Taking action against the current Pebble Mine DEIS
The current DEIS is insufficient and inadequate; it does not address the potential impacts of the project thoroughly enough to prevent the likelihood of irreparable damage to the Nushagak and possibly the Kvichak watersheds. The time for action is right now. I can’t say this nearly strongly enough—we may not get another chance to effect change, so it is vital to express your opinion before July 1, 2019 when the public comment period for the DEIS ends. You can submit your comments here. You can also email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail them to:
US Army Corps of Engineers
645 G St., Suite 100-921
Anchorage, AK 99501
Current DEIS Conclusion
Wild salmon have been dying a death of a million small cuts since the Europeans began devastating their Atlantic salmon runs in the 1700s; then the New Englanders in the 1800s, then the west coast states in the 1900s. We humans can’t seem to grasp the historical fact that we, and our actions, are responsible for the demise of most wild salmon runs. Pebble, as currently proposed, is not a small cut; it’s more like severing a leg. It represents such a gigantic habitat threat to salmon and wildlife that even if you don’t fish for salmon, you should oppose the current DEIS. Please—PLEASE submit comments before the public comment period ends.
This blog originally appeared as the Creel column in the May 2019 issue of Fish Alaska.
Note: This blog has been updated to reflect the extended comment period date ending July 1, 2019. A previous version stated that the comment period ended May 30, 2019.