Copper, Gold or Fish: How a Massive Mining Project is Threatening the World’s Largest Salmon Habitat

Copper, Gold or Fish: How a Massive Mining Project is Threatening the World’s Largest Salmon Habitat  

Lucas Isakowitz

Today 9:57am


BRISTOL BAY, ALASKA —“Waterfall!” Rick Halford’s voice crackled over the communication system as he pointed the nose of his Cessna 185 floatplane toward the river below. My stomach did a backflip as the plane plummeted, and for a moment I forgot why the former Alaska State Senator was giving my photographer and me a private tour of the remote region behind Bristol Bay. Then the plane leveled and Halford pointed out to the right, towards a collection of buildings that he believed were an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen: a mine site with upwards of $300 billion worth in copper and gold.

“I would have said yes to the mine project 20 years ago,” the retired politician said over the headset. “What I didn’t understand then was the size of this project, nor the connection of water to everything; the blood of this system is water, and it’ll bleed everywhere.”

Halford was flying low over the proposed site of the Pebble Mine, an enormous deposit of copper and gold smack in the middle of the two largest river systems of Southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay. For decades, there had been rumors about this region’s potential mineral deposits, and in 2001 a Canadian company called Northern Dynasty Minerals acquired the land rights and began digging exploratory holes. Word quickly spread about the magnitude of the strike: Northern Dynasty estimates that the Pebble deposit holds 107 million ounces of gold and 81 billion pounds of copper, enough to increase U.S. copper production by 20 percent. By 2007, Anglo American, one of the largest mining companies in the world, had partnered with Northern Dynasty, leveraging its financing and mining experience to acquire a fifty-fifty stake in the claim.

As we flew, Rick Halford followed the flow of winding rivers below, mimicking the path that millions of salmon take every year from the ocean to their breeding grounds. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

But copper and gold aren’t the only treasures in the area: Bristol Bay holds the world’s largest salmon habitat, with over 30 million fishreturning from the ocean every single year to swim up rivers to their spawning grounds; the 2017 run drew over 55 million salmon, one of largest ever recorded. This unique interplay between ocean, rivers and lakes is the last place left on the planet that supports wild salmon in such numbers, and the salmon in turn provide 14,000 full and seasonal jobs, about $1.5 billion in annual revenue, as well as food and cultural significance to the Native Alaskan tribes of the area. “You couldn’t find a worse place for the Pebble Mine if you tried,” Halford said earlier in the day, sitting at his home in Dillingham, Alaska. “[Bristol Bay] is not something that you can do again, this is the last place that you should experiment.”

That Halford is one of the mine’s most vocal adversaries speaks volumes: during his 24 years in the Alaska state legislature, Halford saw some of the state’s largest mines begin construction, including the Fort Knox open-pit gold mine, the Greens Creek underground silver mine and the Red Dog open pit zinc and lead mine. “I never opposed a mine before,” Halford told me, “and I don’t think I ever ran for office without the approval of the Alaska Miners Association.” So, what makes Pebble different than the mines that came before it? “The size of the deposit, the type of the deposit and the location of the deposit,” Halford explained. “People that are pro-mining in general are anti-Pebble in specific... I believe Pebble Mine is a potential disaster for the long-term future of Bristol Bay, and this salmon resource.”

Halford fueling his plane before take off; “the beauty of flying is that you get to see how everything connects, and in this part of Alaska, the connection is water,” Halford said during the flyover of the Pebble Mine site. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

Halford giving a systems check and pre-flight safety speech, which consisted of a brief summary of the survival gear that was stored in the back of the plane. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

By 2012, Pebble had completed one million feet of exploratory digging and opposition to the project was in full swing. Fishermen, Alaskan Native groups, and political allies launched awareness campaigns and lobbied for state and federal action. In 2014 the EPA stepped in, releasing a scathing scientific assessment of the impacts that a large mine could have on the region and proposing a number of restrictions to the Pebble project. Anglo American pulled out of the partnership (after investing $573 million in the project), and Northern Dynasty’s stock fell from a high of over $20 a low of $0.21. The battle seemed over.

Then November 8th happened. Immediately following Trump’s election, the value of Northern Dynasty’s stock began to increase amid rumors that the new administration would promote a more business-friendly environmental policy. By January, the company was trading at over $2.00 a share, and had raised nearly $40 million in a sale of secondary stocks. By July, the EPA announced it would be withdrawing the restrictions it had proposed in 2014, settling a long-standing lawsuit with Northern Dynasty. The problem, Halford mused as we flew over miles of rivers and lakes that serve as salmon highways and homes, was that “democracy over-represents the present and under-represents the future.”

The mining camp at the Pebble Mine, which sits atop hundreds of billions of dollar worth of copper and gold. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

The mining project, which had been stalled for the past three years, is now gearing up to apply for the state and federal permits it needs to begin construction. Northern Dynasty is also shopping around for a partner, as it needs $150 million for the permitting process alone (and a billion or two for the development of the mine). This might seem like a hefty sum, but given that the mineral strike is potentially worth hundreds of billions, Northern Dynasty is confident they’ll find a partner by the end of the year. The company recently released a timetable of “project milestones” which aims to finish the permitting phase and begin construction within the four years of Trump’s first term.

As we did a final loop over the proposed site of the mine, Halford explained that one of the largest concerns with the Pebble project is the sheer scale of it. Northern Dynasty hasn’t put forward a formal mining plan, but given how far away the mine site is to any transportation hub (about 85 miles), and given the low-grade nature of the deposit (meaning that there’s a lot of other stuff in the ground that isn’t gold or copper), any economically viable mine would have to be huge. Exactly how huge can be a bit hard to fathom: the EPA report posits that the mine pit could be as deep as the Grand Canyon, and the entire mine footprint (which includes the pit, and waste containment facilities) could cover an area larger than Manhattan; other estimates suggest that the Pebble Mine would be large enough to comfortably hold every other mine in the state. If not the biggest, the mine would likely be one of the largest open-pit gold and copper mines in the world. For Halford, who’s used to seeing this landscape from the air, the scale of the mine is easy to understand: “Just imagine that, upside down, that’s the size of the pit they want to make,” said Halford, pointing to a mountain in the distance.

To be fair, Northern Dynasty hasn’t yet released a formal mine plan, and the company recently press release stating that they’ll be “advancing planning for a smaller project design at Pebble than previously considered, and one that incorporates significant environmental safeguards.” But, for the time being, the company isn’t able to share any specifics. And regardless of how big or small, any mine would necessitate the construction of roughly 85 miles of roads, pipelines, a power plant of sorts, and potentially a shipping port. Also, Pebble isn’t the only potential mine in the region; there are a dozen or so other claims in the same watershed. If Northern Dynasty were to foot the bill for the transportation corridor, other smaller projects could suddenly become economically viable, potentially turning this portion of the Bristol Bay watershed from fish habitat into a mining district.

There’s also the issue of what to do with all the stuff in the ground that isn’t valuable, which, in the case of Pebble, would contain sulfur, traces of copper and other materials that could have negative implications for salmon habitat if released. Open-pit mines typically contain their byproducts in large dam systems, which have been known to leak or fail. This is precisely what happened at the Mount Polly gold mine in 2014, where a dam failure unleashed about 4.5 billion gallons of water and toxic debris into the surrounding salmon habitat.

Such a disaster, Northern Dynasty is quick to point out, will not happen at Pebble, as modern engineering techniques will be used to prevent any failure. And they’re right: the probability of a dam failure is extremely low. But as with any probability, it increases with time. And the EPA report explains that, while all of the gold and copper would be mined out of Pebble in about a century, the waste would need to be maintained “for centuries and potentially in perpetuity.”

“‘Perpetuity’ is a word you should hear in church,” Halford growled over the communication system, pointing to the areas where the tailings dams might be placed. “It’s a word that should scare the hell out of anyone that cares about the future.”

Turning away from the mine site, Halford flew due west towards Wood-Tikchik State Park: 1.6 million acres of remote rivers and lake systems. He followed the waterways; slow moving snakes, extending out forever. “The beauty of flying is that you get to see how everything connects,” exclaimed Halford. “And in this part of Alaska, the connection is water.” Far in the blue distance, the shadow of mountains emerged, teeth coming out of the earth. Halford picked a line between two peaks, flying close enough to a cliff that I could make out the individual rocks. Then, suddenly, the air in front of us opened into the Tikchik lake system: 12 massive alpine pools spread over 1,000 acres, the breeding ground for millions of salmon.

Halford gestured to a green shoreline below. “There he is,” he said, eyeing a spec moving on the beach next to a cabin. “Schindler’s been here for decades. He’ll be able to tell you if everything I said was bullshit or not.”

The countless waterways that make Bristol Bay such a productive and resilient salmon habitat. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

Mountains guard the entrance to the Wood-Tikchik lake system; most of the peaks in this region remain unnamed. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

Lake Nerka and Little Togiak Lake in the Wood-Tikchik system, where millions of salmon come every year to spawn. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

The first thing that the lead scientist at the world’s longest running salmon research camp did as we stepped off the plane was offer us a beer. The second thing Daniel Schindler did was boat us across Lake Nerka to Little Togiak River, to see the fish: tens of thousands of salmon congregated in the river, waiting to mate. These were the lucky ones, Schindler explained, they’d survived years in the ocean, swam past an onslaught of fishermen, hungry grizzlies and swooping eagles, had likely not eaten for a few months, and now were within a few hundred meters of where they were born. Normally silver, the salmon had turned a striking red to attract a mate, and the males had grown elongated snouts and teeth, to fight off rivals. In a few weeks, all of these fish would be dead, but in their wake millions of eggs would hatch an entire new generation of salmon. Schindler laughed at the look of amazement on my face: this is nothing, he said, just wait till tomorrow, I’ll show you a real force of nature.

Schindler is a professor of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington, and has spent every summer for the past twenty years on Lake Nerka. He leads a team of graduate students in a massive data collection exercise, with the goal of understanding what makes this salmon ecosystem so productive and resilient. “This camp has been here for 70 plus years, and every year we leave scratching our heads trying to make sense of what we saw that year,” said Schindler. “It just never stops surprising you.”

Daniel Schindler zipping across Lake Nerka to visit a salmon spawning beach; “it’s the diversity of all those habitat types and the genetic diversity of the salmon that inhabit those habitats that makes the system productive and reliable,” Schindler said. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

The University of Washington’s Fisheries Research Institute camp on the shores of Lake Nerka, where Schindler has been researching salmon for the past 20 years. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

A team of University of Washington graduate students spend every summer collecting data on Lake Nerka, trying to understand what makes Bristol Bay so productive and resilient. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

That evening Schindler cooked up a meal of pasta and Bolognese sauce, and, just as the sun was setting, the two graduate students returned from the field. After dinner and during a few glasses of beer and boxed wine, Schindler got to the heart of the Pebble Mine issue: water. The very same thing that makes Bristol Bay such a good place for salmon is what makes a mine like Pebble so dangerous. The last glaciation carved up Bristol Bay’s landscape, leaving a layer of gravel that makes the land a giant colander: snow and rainfall seep through the ground, and eventually percolate back out onto the streams and rivers; this water flow oxygenates the salmon eggs and keeps them from freezing, and the gravel gives salmon fry plenty of places to hide during the first months of their lives.

But the porous landscape also means that any runoff, spillage and dam failure from a mine would be very difficult to contain. Copper leaking out into the waterways would interfere with salmon’s sense of smell, which is a critical component of finding their way back to their natal streams to spawn. And if sulfur leaked out, it would combine with the air and water to form sulfuric acid. “Battery acid,” said Schindler, flatly.

A layer of gravel makes the water system in Bristol Bay especially well suited for salmon. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

Schindler isn’t alarmist; he doesn’t think that any single spill would, in itself, have a huge impact on the region’s salmon. But at the same time, he explained that there’s so much about the system that we still don’t understand. “Imagine that a car has a few hundred thousand parts, if it breaks down we can fix it but only because we know what each part does,” he said. “With Bristol Bay and salmon, we just don’t know what each variable does.”

This diversity becomes even more important as climate change creeps into the picture. Schindler explained that warmer temperatures during the past 50 years have actually made the Bristol Bay fishery more productive (accelerating the growth and development of eggs, and increasing productivity of certain food sources). But at some point, warm will become too warm, we just don’t know when. “It’s really easy to say: ‘that’s a really tiny creek, it doesn’t produce more than a couple of hundred fish, let’s put Walmart in there’” said Schindler, “but these little pieces of habitat may be the sites that will be the important ones in the future … by maintaining that diversity of habitat we’re preparing for the unknown future.”

The next morning Schindler and a graduate student zipped us across the lake to the Agulukpak River. Schindler turned the boat engine off, letting us drift towards shore. I stood up to get a better look into the sun-drenched river, catching a fish here and there. Then, all around, red specs began to appear, gems gleaming in the clear water: salmon everywhere, in twos and threes, waiting to mate. Schindler looked over at us, smug: in these few miles of river, Schindler estimated that there were 500,000 fish.

Then his face fell: “The sad part is that we’re doing here exactly what we did in the Lower 48, we know where we screwed up, and yet here we are, considering a massive mine.”

300 years ago, the waters all along the American coast, both Pacific and Atlantic, teemed with salmon: hundreds of millions of fish, perhaps even billions of fish. You could practically have walked from England to the Americas on a silver bridge of salmon. Things changed quickly.

As we built settlements along waterways, dammed and shifted rivers, and deforested riverbanks, we systematically eliminated the breeding grounds for Atlantic salmon. By the 1800s, nearly every strain of Atlantic salmon that inhabited the rivers of North America had disappeared. Pacific salmon fared only slightly better; development locked off lakes and rivers, wiping off countless strains of salmon. In California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, salmon are believed to be extinct in 40 percent of the rivers where they once existed and highly diminished in the runs that remain. The lesson was clear: unmeasured development can destroy a population that was once hundreds of millions strong.

By the 21st century, Alaska was pretty much the last wild salmon fishery left in the U.S., and Bristol Bay the only one of its size left on the planet. “If we’re going to make decisions to move ahead with mines such as this, or any large-scale industrial project, we need to look history squarely in the face and ask: ‘what’s her capacity to deal with the impacts of these things?’” said Schindler. “And it’s not been good, and it’s particularly not been good with mining activities.”

Salmon are left without energy after their arduous journey back to their spawning grounds, and the shores of Lake Nerka are littered with salmon carcasses. But in their wake, millions of eggs will hatch an entire new generation of salmon. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

“People have made assumptions about the impacts of our project, without having a project to base those assumptions around,” said Mike Heatwole, Vice President of Public Affairs for the Pebble Mine. “The EPA report was an outcome looking for a study, they went into it looking for a way to stop this project, and that’s not how the system is supposed to work.” We were sitting in his office in Anchorage, which was littered with research papers and pro-Pebble stickers. Heatwole has a long, tired face, you can tell that he’s answered all of these questions hundreds, if not thousands of times. For every mine disaster, Heatwole can list off a dozen mines that are examples of successful development; in Alaska alone, he quickly cited the examples of Red Dog, Fort Knox, Greens Creek, Kensington and Pogo.

Heatwole has been with Northern Dynasty for almost a decade and has witnessed the company grow in size, to over 500 workers, and then shrink down again to just a handful of employees. His main sticking point is that Pebble deserves the same shot as every other mine in the state: “If you, as an operator, are able to show that you meet the requirements for, say, water quality, should you or should you not be given the permit?” Heatwole asked. “So, I would flip the question and say, if Pebble can demonstrate that it can meet all of the requirements to develop a project here, should we get a permit?”

The obvious answer here is yes. But there is a big “but” hidden in there: The Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR), rarely, if ever, denies mining permits. Several people, including Halford, told me that DNR had never rejected a mining application, ever; when I reached out to DNR to get a final word on this, an agency spokesman told me that he’d “have to research this question a bit more to provide specific examples,” but that generally denials are rare, because DNR will allow applicants to rework their application until it complies “with existing state laws.” So, if you don’t trust the permitting process in the first place, then there’s good reason to want the EPA to step in like it did.

Now that the EPA’s proposed restrictions are in the process of being removed (a 90-day public comment period on the withdrawal of the proposed regulations ends October 17th), the next step for Pebble to get the state and federal permits it needs is to publish a formal mine plan. Heatwole said that such a plan would be released within the next few months, and although he wasn’t able to share the details of the forthcoming mining plan, he did verify that it would be for a “smaller project design” than previously considered. If everything goes according to planned - Northern Dynasty gets a partner in the project to help with financing, and obtains all the permitting flawlessly- the construction of the mine could start by 2020.

The Pebble deposit sits in between the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers, two of the most productive water systems in Bristol Bay. Graphic source: EPA

Throughout our interview, Heatwole bemoaned the bad press that the project had received since its inception, explaining at length how Pebble Mine would be good for the region: generating around 15,000 jobs, bringing in tens of billions in tax revenue, and, if properly built, having only a limited impact on the region’s fisheries. “And, to top it off, we need copper,” said Heatwole.

In defending Pebble, Heatwole likes to bring up an argument first put forth by two Yale University Professors; the central tenants of the Consumption Conundrum are fairly simple: as a society, we use an enormous amount of mined material (copper, for instance, is a critical component for nearly all electronics), and we have an obligation of choosing where and how these minerals are mined. “The U.S. has some of the most stringent environmental laws in the world,” Heatwole explained. “And so, the question is: do you want to develop a mine under these standards, or do you want to turn a blind eye and have the minerals mined in third world jurisdictions where the environmental restrictions are probably not close to what they are here?” Heatwole’s point is reinforced when you look at some of the larger copper producing nations (Chile, Peru, China and the Congo), all of which which have shoddy mining track records. Moreover, the U.S. imports about 35 percent of the copper it consumes every year, the bulk of it from Chile. There’s no doubt that a mine the size of Pebble, with potentially 81 billion pounds of copper, would significantly reduce U.S. copper imports.

“Look around you: everything that isn’t wood probably came from the ground,” Heatwole said, reiterating the same point that his email signature makes: “brought to you by this iPhone, which that has 62 mined minerals in it.”

“You hear a lot of different people talk about the economic arguments, the commercial fisheries, the last great wild salmon fishery on the face of the planet,” said Alannah Hurley, Executive Director the United Tribes of Bristol Bay (UTBB), an organization that works to advance the interests of the native peoples of the region. “But for us, for the Yup’ik, Denai’na, and Alutiq people, who have been here for thousands of years, this is a human rights issue, this is an environmental justice issue, this is who we are and who our people have been forever, and this is about our ability to ensure that our cultures live forward.”

The Bristol Bay region is home to roughly 7,000 Alaskans, about 65 percent of whom are indigenous peoples. Throughout the thousands of years that they’ve lived here, long before the threat of mining ever existed, the tribes of this area have harvested salmon. This practice continues today, with subsistence fishing providing a consistent source of food, and commercial fishing a source of money. Hurley herself has spent her entire life as a commercial fisherman: as a child, she would sit in the boat with her grandmother, a tiny life jacket around her chest, propped inside of a bucket so she wouldn’t crawl around. She doesn’t remember the world before fish, and she can’t imagine a world without fish. “We’re salmon people,” she said, “fish basically makes our hearts beat in Bristol Bay.”

Alannah Hurley standing next to her set-net skiff in Dillingham, Alaska; she’s been fishing in Bristol Bay for her entire life. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

Hurley told me that most of the Native Alaskans represented by UTBB view Pebble Mine as a threat: a survey conducted in 2009 showed that as high as 80 percent of the adults in the Bristol Bay area opposed the mining project, and almost 90 percent believed that the mine posed a risk to the fishery. Robert Heyano, president of UTBB and livelong fishermen of Bristol Bay, explained the reason for these strong views: salmon aren’t just food or money, but cultural identity.

As the president and director of UTBB, Heyano and Hurley represent many of the tribes that fought so hard for the EPA to get involved in the Pebble project back in 2014. Now, with the Trump Administration in charge, they feel like their back to square one. “How do you turn your back on the indigenous people who have been here forever and want to be here forever?” Hurley asked. “How do you sleep at night, knowing your actions and your role back of these protections is putting all of that at risk, for a 50-year gold mine, so a Canadian mining company can turn a buck?”

A huge part of UTBB’s missions is ensuring that the native people of Bristol Bay reap the benefits of the resources in the area, most notably fishing. Hurley explained that this entails keeping a mine like Pebble out, but there’s more to it than that. Overtime, Native Alaskans have slowly been pushed out of the commercial fishery: when permits were first issued in 1972, almost 40 percentwere held by local residents (the majority of whom were Native Alaskans), now that number is less than 20 percent. By contrast, 55 percent of the permits are currently held by out-of-state residents. UTBB, in collaboration with other regional organizations, works to get these permits back into native hands.

Fishing boats wintering at the PAF Boat Yard in Dillingham, Alaska; the population in the town swells during the summer, as out-of-state fishermen come to Dillingham to work. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

While Hurley sees the inequality in the fishing industry as something to improve upon, others view it as a reason to support the Pebble Mine. Lisa Reimers grew up in the village of Iliamna, which is just 15 miles away from the proposed mine site. Like Heyano and Hurley, Reimers spent her life fishing, but gave it up to take a permanent job working for Iliamna Native Limited, the entity that is charged with managing and investing the village’s resources. In Pebble, Reimers sees an opportunity for her people: “When Pebble actually had a partner, Anglo American, they were able to dump money into this area for the exploration work, and it was a huge boom for us, jobs and businesses,” she said. And when Pebble lost funding because of the EPA, “it turned us upside down.”

Heatwole had mentioned to me that Iliamna wasn’t the only village in the region that viewed Pebble as a potential opportunity. “In Pebble, we want to protect the fish, protect the water, and create the opportunity for local people to have jobs,” he told me, explaining that Northern Dynasty has consistently made community involvement a cornerstone of their development program.

Reimers is hopeful that the Pebble project comes back, but she’s also cautious: “We don’t trust developers,” she said, “but by participating in the project it means that if they do mine this, we’re not going to be left looking in from the outside.” In addition to local jobs, Iliamna Native Limited hopes to benefit from the project by leasing land to Northern Dynasty for the transportation corridor. “Only if it can be done safely, of course” Reimers said. “That’s our home, why would we ever support something that could ruin our home?”

Robert Heyano standing next to Lady Mindy, his fishing boat. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

Both Hurley and Heyano acknowledge the difficulties of living in rural communities with limited opportunities, but they think that Pebble is way too risky of a project. “Whether it’s mining or something else that brings additional jobs, that lets you provide a better life for your family, I understand that,” said Heyano. “But this, this will destroy the very essence of this region.” Heyano points out that mineral extraction is a short-term project, relatively speaking, compared to salmon that have been harvested for thousands of years. He’s been fishing commercially since 1972, and he hasn’t missed a season since. Not once, in 45 years. And sure, some years there are more fish than others, “but every year the fish come.”

Hurley went on to explain that to her knowledge, mining has never played a central role for the Native Alaskans of the Bristol Bay region. “There are stories of people from the up-river communities seeing gold, and seeing these different minerals, and keeping quiet about it, because they knew what it would bring: the mess we’re in now.” Hurley said, shaking her head. “I don’t ever foresee a time when shiny rocks outweigh the importance of everything that makes us who we are as native people. And you need to call it what it is: a shiny fucking rock. Something is wrong when a shiny rock has that much value in the world, and people are willing to put so much at risk for shiny rocks. It just makes me sick.”

The complex and majestic waters of Bristol Bay that produce millions of salmon every year. Photo credit: Duncan Sullivan

This article was made with funding from Participant Media, the creator of “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.” 

Lucas Isakowitz

Lucas is an environmental researcher, writer and producer working hard to keep alive the natural curiosity that we all had as children.

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