Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine
What is Bristol Bay?
Bristol Bay, in southwest Alaska, is a vast marine ecosystem of rivers, tundra, and wetlands and is home to the largest wild red salmon run on earth. This immense watershed, approximately the size of Indiana, provides habitat for more than 29 different fish species (including all 5 species of Pacific salmon – pink, chum, coho, Chinook and sockeye), 190 bird species, and 40+ terrestrial and marine animals, including brown bears, moose, caribou, eagles, walrus, whales, belugas, caribou, seals and trout. In addition, the area is home to over 7000 people, including Yup’ik, Dena’ina and Alutiiq Natives, who depend on the fish and other animals as part of their subsistence lifestyle and cultural heritage.
The question that Pebble begs is, is this the right mine for this location? Ansel Adams in a 1970 Chubb fellowship lecture at Yale addressed this ideology like this, “Wilderness, to me at least, is a ‘mystique’; a valid, intangible, non-materialistic experience. The right to experience is a fundamental right, just as is the right to possess, the right to believe or the right to work or right to security. The concept that there are other (and equally important) values than those of obvious material and financial character is one that we must nourish and support to the utmost.”
In 2019, 56.3 million salmon arrived to spawn in the Bristol Bay region, one of the largest on record. To merely place an economic value on the Bristol Bay fishery, a report by The Institute for Social and Economic Research at UAA, estimated that the commercial salmon fishery contributed $1.5 billion to the US economy in 2010. The value has only increased since that report came out, and currently the fisheries, both sport and commercial, support some 20,000 jobs. Each year the Bristol Bay watershed produces over half the world's supply of sockeye salmon. This Marine Stewardship Council certified sustainable fishery uses science-based management to preserve the longterm health of the run and has a 100+ year proven track record.
What is the Pebble Mine?
The proposed open-pit Pebble mine sits on a massive low-grade gold and copper deposit, located in a seismically active region, near Lake Iliamna, at the headwaters of two of Bristol Bay's largest rivers. If developed to the full extent of the original proposal, it would be North America's largest open-pit mine. With a mine footprint of roughly 20 sq. miles (approximately the size of Manhattan), the pit would be deeper than the Empire State Building is tall. It would require the world’s largest earthen dam (some 700 feet tall and many miles in length) to hold toxic tailings, construction of a deep water port and hundreds of miles of roads through sensitive salmon habitat.
In its permit application, the Pebble Partnership reduced its proposed mine size to a smaller footprint, shown above in yellow, that would extract only 10% of the mineral deposit. Independent mining experts reviewing this version have deemed it economically unfeasible. Opponents believe that once Pebble is granted a permit, it would expand to not only exploit the whole deposit but create the infrastructure for mining developments across the region, effectively turning the entire Bristol Bay watershed into a mining district.
A rigorously peer-reviewed three-year EPA study estimated a loss of approximately 94 miles of streams and 5,350 acres of wetlands, lakes and ponds, and determined that large scale mining would ultimately pose ‘unacceptable adverse risks’ to the Bristol Bay watershed. Approximately 85% of Bristol Bay residents oppose the mine, a majority of Alaskans oppose the mine, and former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens called it "the wrong mine in the wrong place."
In November 2020 the Army Corps of Engineers denied the Pebble Partnership a permit to proceed. Senators Murkowski and Sullivan both supported this and have stated publicly that they do not support Pebble Mine due to potential damage to the environment and the Bristol Bay fishery. The battle is not over with this welcome news, as there are other avenues that Pebble can use to appeal this ruling and pursue obtaining necessary permits. It is a huge step in the right direction, however.