Alaska Chooses Largest Gold Mine Over Clean Water

Editor's Note: Check out the video to the right from the film "Red Gold" by Felt Soul Media.

The spawning of salmon is something of a primal, epic drama. After spending their life of several years in the sea, the fish make their way up streams to the places where they were born. They don't eat, all their energy focused on their single-minded goal of spawning, after which they will die. Their flesh turns red from the effort, and hormones cause the males to develop a hump and a sinister-looking, toothy hooked beak.

The salmon life cycle is also part of the cycle of life for thousands of Alaska natives and Alaskans in general. Bristol Bay is known as the world's largest wild salmon fishery. With more than 30 million salmon worth hundreds of millions of dollars caught per year, it is a bedrock of commercial fishing and Alaska natives' subsistence fishing as well as a popular sport-fishing destination. Even people who have dispersed to Anchorage or other towns return yearly, like the salmon, to fish in Bristol Bay. The state's fishing industry is highly regulated to ensure the salmon population is not overfished.

But on Aug. 26, Alaskans voted down a ballot measure that proponents had cast as crucial to the future survival of Bristol Bay salmon. Ballot measure 4, which survived a challenge that went all the way to the state Supreme Court to remain on the state's primary ballot, would have prohibited large metal mines from contaminating salmon streams and drinking water sources. Though by law the ballot measure couldn't name a specific project, everyone knew it was aimed at the proposed Pebble Mine, which if developed as planned would be North America's largest open pit gold mine, also mining copper and molybdenum (a crucial element in steel).

Opponents of the ballot measure, which was defeated by 57 percent of voters (95,338 to 71,456), called it a "mining shutdown" and said it could not only block the Pebble Mine but paralyze Alaskan mining in general and force existing mines to close. Much of Alaska was settled during the gold rush of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and like oil, mining is seen by many as central to the state's economy and identity. It is also seen as an economic lifeline in a time of astronomically high energy prices and stagnation in fishery profits partly because of competition from Chilean and Norwegian fish farms.

Multinational mining giant Anglo American and its Canadian partner in the venture, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., say they will safely contain waste from Pebble Mine, namely the sulfuric acid that results when sulfide ore is disturbed and exposed to oxygen -- also known as acid mine drainage. But opponents of the mine say no sulfide mine has ever operated without leakage, and they also fear cyanide, which is normally used in the refining of gold.

John Shively, CEO of Pebble Partnership, notes that the mine proposal is only in the early stages and must still undergo numerous environmental studies and permitting processes including being subject to state and federal water protections. The partnership promises that no harm will come to salmon.

But given the record of resource exploitation in Alaska, many are skeptical. Alaska native communities around Prince William Sound are still feeling the devastating effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 and are disgusted with the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision holding the company's punitive damages at $507 million. Residents of small towns like Tatitlek on the sound say they are still unable to eat local shellfish and seabirds, since thousands of gallons of oil still contaminate the beach.

The Pogo gold mine in northern Alaska, run by Teck Cominco, has the nation's eighth-highest releases of the neurotoxin mercury, with more than 2,000 pounds in 2005, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Likewise, Teck Cominco's Red Dog mine, the world's largest zinc mine, near the Chukchi Sea in northwestern Alaska, has been blamed for contaminating the Ikalukrok and Wulik rivers after melting permafrost contributed to acid leakage. Only 32 people live near the mine, so critics say it has been able to get away with contamination with little oversight. It also benefits the NANA Regional Corporation, which owns the land and is one of 13 native corporations formed by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.

The EPA ordered remediation at Red Dog in 1991 and several years later lodged a $4.7 million penalty against Teck Cominco. Teck Cominco also originally explored and owned the rights to the Pebble Mine project before selling to Northern Dynasty. Critics of the Pebble project, including former Cominco environmental affairs director Bruce Switzer, say the fact that this company sold such a potentially lucrative project shows it is not practically or environmentally viable.

"How can Vancouver stock promoters (Northern Dynasty) and inexperienced South Africans (Anglo American) protect this environment when the best and most experienced northern mining company had so many problems for so long in the far more benign environment at Red Dog, and, in light of all their experience, walked away from Pebble?" asked Switzer in an editorial in the Anchorage Daily News.

Art Hackney, president of the group Alaskans for Clean Water, which drafted the ballot measure, said there is no doubt the Pebble Mine would harm salmon in Bristol Bay.

"It's a 100 percent certainty that if the scope of this mine is put in as planned, you will contaminate the water," he said. "It's an absolute given. Alaska is a mining state, but nothing has come close to the potential damage this mine could have. There's no mine in a place like this. This sits astride two river systems that feed Bristol Bay."

As part of a global "No Dirty Gold" campaign, Tiffany & Co., Helzberg Diamonds and several other prominent jewelers have pledged not to buy gold from Pebble Mine.

Critics of the mine also point out that the area is prone to seismic activity, making leaks and cracks in retaining ponds more likely. And they complain that development associated with the mine, including the building of a road to transport ore to Cook Inlet and heavy traffic in and out, would have environmental and social effects.

But some local proponents of the mine say that in an economically suffering area, development and an influx of workers is a good thing.

Steve Borell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, said mining has not caused any major environmental disasters in the state to date and could serve as an important source of jobs and investment for rural Alaska, especially Alaska native villages, which have been hit hard by sky-high prices of gas and heating oil.

"I believe within 50 to 60 miles of any native village is a mineral resource that can be developed," he said. "In those villages there are no jobs except a few teachers who are from somewhere else, a janitor, a part-time worker at the airfield."

With mining jobs, he said, Alaska natives will be able to stay in their villages and keep local schools open instead of being forced to leave for the cities. "The native people of Alaska recognize how important mining is to their future," he said, adding that before the vote, proponents of the initiative were "sending people to the villages to scare people" about the mine.

But Eric Olson, who grew up in Bristol Bay fishing salmon, said fishing is essential to the identity of people there. He pointed out that the Yu'pik Eskimo phrase for "let's eat" basically equates to "let's eat fish," and most of the villages and landmarks in the area are named after fish. He, like many natives of the Bristol Bay area who have moved elsewhere, still returns there to fish in the summers.

"It's a fishing town, as almost all the communities in western Alaska are," he said. "I don't see how you can guarantee (the mine) would never have an effect. If tailings and chemicals leak, it's right above Iliamna Lake."

Hackney said this was the first time mining industry leaders have faced a major challenge to their plans in Alaska, known as the easiest state to get a mine permitted. The multimillion-dollar ballot initiative campaign, funded by private donors including Bristol Bay area resort owner Bob Gillam and the group Americans for Job Security, blanketed cities and towns with posters and lawn signs and packed the airwaves with radio and TV spots promoting clean water and salmon. The mining industry responded in kind, with ads decreeing a "mining shutdown."

Though the ballot measure failed, the battle over Pebble Mine is bound to continue through each step of the permitting and development process. This will just be the latest, though perhaps the biggest, in a series of challenges for the fishermen of Bristol Bay, a group perhaps as tough and determined as the salmon swimming stolidly upstream.

Gloria Chythlook-Sifsof, a third-generation Bristol Bay fisherman from the town of Dillingham, recalls the rancorous struggles fishermen have endured over the past two decades, including a bitter 1991 strike against processors offering low prices and rising competition from fish farms that caused prices to plummet. Thanks to the increasing popularity of wild salmon, Bristol Bay's industry has been rebounding. She hopes Pebble Mine doesn't sink it now.

"This is about employment where people feel useful and proud of what they are doing," said Chythlook-Sifsof, who now lives in Girdwood with her daughter, a world-class snowboarder who also still fishes Bristol Bay in the summer. "We can't let Pebble Mine shut it down."

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