The pristine rivers and streams that feed into Bristol Bay, Alaska, produce a salmon stronghold that has been celebrated as renewable wealth for thousands of years — first by indigenous peoples, and now the world over, by commercial fishermen like Moab resident Nick Lee.
“When people don’t know where their food comes from — and fish in particular — there are consequences,” Lee said.
Lee owns and operates Alaska Select Seafood, providing sea-to-table fish for Moab distribution to club members and Moonflower Community Cooperative. He is spreading awareness about what he sees as the impending threat of the proposed Pebble Mine.
More than half the world’s sockeye salmon come from the rivers that flow into Bristol Bay. Of those rivers, the Kvichak and Nushagak flow from headwaters over a deposit of gold, copper and molybdenum — the Pebble Deposit.
Canadian-owned Northern Dynasty Minerals has plans in the works to mine the Pebble Deposit. According to Lee, should the materials be extracted from underneath the Bristol Bay headwaters, it is not a matter of if, but when and how severely the inherent damage from one of the world’s largest open-pit mines will compromise the world’s leading sustainable fishery.
He said the proposed Pebble Mine would strip desired materials from the deposit and leave a tailings storage facility (a dam) of 30 billion cubic feet of what Lee calls a “toxic soup,” to be mitigated in perpetuity.
“There’s a history of mines that have been developed, then leave toxic waste behind,” Lee told the Moab Sun News. “Then the taxpayers are the ones holding the bag at the end of the day.”
Moab resident Beverly O’Niell owns and operates a tender boat with her husband, Tim, and has also spent much time in the commercial fishing industry of Bristol Bay.
O’Niell equates concerns about Pebble’s tailings to Moab’s own Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project — the ongoing removal of 16 million tons of uranium tailings from along the banks of the Colorado River.
“The people who made the money from it are long gone,” O’Niell said. “Now Moab and taxpayers are having to deal with the cleanup. In Alaska, what happens when they pull out?”
The commercial fishermen are concerned that the Pebble tailings, over two key arteries of the Bristol Bay watershed, would contain toxins known to be detrimental to salmon habitat and would require specialized mitigation for generations.
In a 2014 assessment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that if a dam holding the tailings failed and released just 20% of the toxins, the affected streams would not support fish life for several years and would provide low-quality spawning and rearing habitat for decades.
The Bristol Bay watershed is in the area of Katmai and Lake Clark national parks. The area consists of three active volcanoes and Iliamna Lake, the eighth largest lake in the U.S. The Alaska-Aleutian megathrust, a significant source in the region of ongoing seismic activity, is located about 125 miles from the proposed Pebble Mine. The collisions between the North American tectonic plate and the Pacific plate create moderate to large earthquakes each year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, with some of the world’s largest earthquakes on occasion, such as the 9.2 in Prince William Sound in 1964.
In 2014, a failed dam engineered by Knight Piesold, the same company contracted to design the tailings facility at Pebble, brought further awareness to the threats posed by large-scale mining with “state-of-the-art” technology. When the engineering of the Mount Polley tailings dam in British Columbia failed, it sent 24 million cubic meters of mining waste into nearby lakes and rivers, the Vancouver Sun reported.
In 2017, a new proposal was made to reduce the size of the mine.
O’Niell said she finds it hard to grapple with the severity of the situation, all for one Canadian-owned mine.
But Lee said the Pebble Project should be considered the “tip of the spear” or a “Trojan Horse” for big mining in Alaska.
“They got pushback on the larger [proposal], so they came back with a smaller one,” he said. “They’re saying they’ll go in and just mine 10% of the deposit. That’s a lie — it’s not economically viable. They will go after it all. They are telling their investors one thing and they’re going through the permitting process with another story.”
Pebble’s CEO Tom Collier (who, according to Alaska Public Media, has a $12.5 million personal bonus on the line if the project advances quickly) claimed in the Anchorage Daily News that Pebble was now proposing a “smaller footprint.”
Lee said he believes the Pebble Mine, if permitted, will “open a can of worms” that will turn wild Alaska into a mining district.
“Once they get their permitting, what’s to stop all the other mining claims from moving forward? They are all up and down that area,” he said.
Those against the Pebble Mine point to the wealth of global sustenance from Bristol Bay (which according to the 2014 EPA assessment provides over half the world’s salmon and 14,000 jobs) and say this is contingent on the pristine conditions of the lakes, rivers and streams that feed into the Bering Sea. Bristol Bay industry is valued at $1.5 billion and had its largest run on record in the summer of 2018; approximately 63 million wild sockeye salmon returned to the fresh waters of Bristol Bay to spawn, according to Alaska Public Media.
“I think we need to protect wild places like this,” Lee said. “This should be not only a national treasure, but national food security. It’s the cleanest, healthiest source of protein on this planet.”
Moab resident Karl Spielman has also spent years commercial fishing in Bristol Bay.
“I hated to see the project come online,” he said. “You couldn’t put a worse mine in a worse place. I hate to see it happen and I don’t want it to happen, but there’s a lot to it.”
Spielman acknowledges that as the world currently operates, there is a need for finite resources such as the Pebble Mine would provide.
“On the one hand, if I oppose this mine, I have to say for myself that I’m OK with it moving into some other poor sucker’s backyard, like in Peru or Africa, because the reality is that we need copper,” he said. “On the other hand, the way I’d like to see this mine defeated is by a teachable moment. I’d like to see the state of Alaska come up with a revolutionary way of pinning liability on the people who profit from this project. I want Alaska to say, ‘OK, if there is adequate engineering and enough people behind [Pebble Mine], then these corporations will never be immune to the liability from this mine.’ Because it will go on for hundreds of years.”
The U.S. Army Corps’ draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is available to the public at pebbleprojecteis.com. There is a 90-day window, closing May 30, for public commentary.
Lee said he hopes to continue spreading awareness surrounding the Pebble Project beyond Alaska’s borders.
“I think if people knew their sockeye salmon came from Bristol Bay, they would more likely care about that environment,” he said. “And hopefully help fight for it.”