In an age where man’s desire to modernize and exploit the natural world has oozed its way across the planet in an unyielding tide of consumption, Alaska has so far remained mostly untouched. The state has somehow held its ground against the pounding waves of development, remaining a beacon of wilderness on the shores of civilization. Now, though, there is a proposal to build a mine—the Pebble Mine—that could very well destroy the soul of the state and all it represents.
The threat of what would become North America’s largest copper, gold, and molybdenum mine has loomed over the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska, home to the largest salmon run in the country, for more than a decade. Originally proposed in 2006, the Pebble Mine was set to be constructed in a remote and mostly uninhabited part of Alaska, some 200 miles south of Anchorage. The nearest communities to the project were a couple of smaller, predominately native-populated villages. Therefore, the developers reasoned, it would have little impact on the human population.
Of course, the wildlife in the area would be devastated as not only would the mining displace more than a dozen different species, but the location of the mine is only 15 miles north of Lake Iliamna, from which flows the Kvichak River, which flows into Bristol Bay. All of which, along with a dozen other rivers interconnected throughout the region, maintain runs of all five species of Pacific salmon. Unsurprisingly, the Pebble Mine project was originally met with heavy opposition due to the risk of polluting these waterways as a result of the mining. Local environmental groups and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) itself spoke out against the project.
In 2014 the Obama administration put a stop to the proposed Pebble Mine project, recognizing the devastating impact it could have on the salmon industry. Back then, environmentalists thought the threat was over. But in June 2019, the Trump administration breathed new life into the Pebble Mine project. The EPA under the current administration dropped its opposition to the mine, allowing the project to enter the National Environmental Policy Act permitting process.
What the Pebble Mine could provide
The Pebble Mine Project could bring quite a lot to the country. The mine would create more than 3,000 jobs in a low-income, low-opportunity area. The mineral deposit the mine would be situated upon is the second largest of its kind in the world. A 2010 estimate of the Pebble Mine showed more than $300 billion dollars’ worth of recoverable metals within that one deposit. With construction costs and taxes, profits from the mine would be more than 4.7 billion dollars over a 20-year period.
The mine would provide significant tax revenue to Alaska, helping the state lessen its reliance on oil-tax revenue. All of this would be incredibly beneficial for not only the state of Alaska, but the United States in its entirety, as we would be less dependent on foreign sources for these minerals. This is all well and good, and perfectly reasonable arguments as to why the Pebble Mine project could be considered a good idea. But what really needs to be looked at is what’s at risk.
The inevitable damage
The construction of the Pebble Mine would permanently destroy more than 80 miles of river and 35,000 acres of tundra and wetlands. And that’s if all goes well. As we’ve learned with the mining disasters of the past, the accidental discharge of the different chemicals and by-products of mining can devastate the environment. Heavy metals that have leached into groundwater can remain present for more than 70 years, putting innumerable species—including humans—who depend on said ground water for survival at risk for generations.
Proponents of the Pebble Mine project argue that most mining disasters occurred before the implementation of current advanced technologies and practices. This seems like the same argument made by the builders of the “unsinkable” Titanic, and we all know how that turned out. The fact is, Pebble Mine will require the largest earthen dam in the world to be built for a permanent containment pond that will hold up to 10 billion tons of mine waste—all in an active seismic area that has seen recorded earthquakes as large as 9.2. This is clearly a formula for disaster.
Even without a major disaster happening, the by-products of the Pebble Mine will most certainly find their way into Bristol Bay and to the salmon. The importance of those fish cannot be understated. Not only is the salmon fishing in Bristol Bay a sustainable, $1.5 billion-dollar-per-year industry that utilizes a renewable resource (as opposed to the Pebble Mine, which will last a mere 20 years), but the fish themselves are the lifeblood of the Alaskan ecosystem. The salmon runs provide crucial nutrients to the rivers, which in turn enrich the ground water, which enrich the flora, which sustain the fauna, and so on. The salmon runs of Bristol Bay are the first link in a long chain of life that makes up Alaska herself.
Do something while there’s still time
This is a call to arms. As hunters and fishermen, outdoorsmen and environmentalists, we are caretakers of the earth. It is our job to ensure that the few remaining wild places of the world stay wild for future generations so they can, in turn, pass on our traditions and continue to share in the joy provided by the wilderness. This isn’t about politics. This isn’t just about Bristol Bay or Alaska. We are at a crucial moment in time where, if we back down and allow the Pebble Mine project to come into being, we open a door we can never close again.
We’d be saying that it is OK for this parasitic behavior to continue elsewhere, mindlessly consuming the last bastions of nature for temporary gain. I encourage you to not only join in the fight but to implore every sportsmen you know do so as well. Sign petitions. Contact your local congressman. Hell, fly to Bristol Bay and chain yourself to a bulldozer, if necessary. Do whatever you can. We need to unite and make our voices heard: As far as the Pebble Mine goes, it’s the wrong place and the wrong mine.