ILIAMNA, Alaska – In the vast, green, windswept tundra of southwestern Alaska, the planet’s greatest remaining stronghold of wild salmon, an open-pit mine of staggering proportions is being hatched.
Right now it’s just a cluster of buildings in a remote valley, where the silence is broken by the buzz of helicopters bringing workers to collect core samples. But the proposed Pebble Mine could become the largest open-pit mine on the continent, and the Environmental Protection Agency figures it could wipe out nearly 100 miles of streams and thousands of acres of wetlands.
The deposit of copper and gold is a potential $300 billion bonanza in a place where good jobs can be scarce. The mine’s promise of opportunity sits uneasily, though, in a region that produces half the world’s wild red salmon and sustains indigenous Alaska Native cultures that have been tied to the fish for at least 4,000 years.
“When the mine happens, it will destroy a culture,” said Jack Allen, the owner of Nushagak Cab in the Bristol Bay fishing community of Dillingham. “Fishing is not just about money here; it’s life.”
Mine opponents are pressing the EPA to shut down the project before it gets traction. Canada’s Northern Dynasty Minerals says its subsidiary, the Pebble Partnership, has almost finished drawing up the mine plan.
Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively hopes to start applying soon for the needed federal and state permits, possibly by the end of the year.
“For me, the biggest social and cultural aspects of that region are the salmon and what it means to people for subsistence,” said Shively, a former Alaska state official. “I am not about to bring a plan forward I think would destroy their subsistence opportunities.”
The project’s massive size might require a dam higher than the Washington Monument to hold waste for hundreds to thousands of years after the mine’s production is finished, the EPA said. Failure of the earthen dam or the pipeline carrying copper concentrate could poison salmon with acid-producing compounds or copper.
Most people in the Bristol Bay region are not convinced.
“All the mine is going to do is kill our fisheries,” said Nick Christiansen of Dillingham, smoking a cigarette on board the fishing vessel Sherry Sea. “There’s no way to do it safely; that’s been proven around the world.”
Salmon is the heartbeat and lifeblood of Dillingham, the region’s largest town. For its 2,300 residents, salmon in the freezer helps make ends meet in a place where milk costs $10.99 a gallon. Commercial fishermen and processing workers double the population in the summer.
On a recent night at the Sea Inn Bar in Dillingham, customers knocked back beers, played pool in the back room and talked about how much they despise the mine.
“Everything needs clean water. The plants, animals, the fish,” said Raymond Apokedak, from the village of Levelock. “If something gets contaminated, we can’t live. We don’t have a Walmart up the road.”
But one patron, Ken Rolf, abruptly asked to step outside into the twilight that passes for night in an Alaskan summer.
“What the mine will do for Southwest Alaska is phenomenal: all the industry, all the work. We need to put people to work,” he said, out of earshot of the others.
Even in this early stage, the mine has put some locals to work. Pebble’s geologists and engineers are surveying the area and have hired for jobs ranging from kitchen help to bear guards.
Should the Pebble Mine proceed, developers would spend more than a billion dollars on construction for five years and would employ an average of more than 900 people at the mine for its first 25 years of operation, estimates a report for the Pebble Partnership by the national economic-consulting firm IHS.
“We have our fish, our berries, our moose, our caribou. But we also have a cash economy,” said Martha Anelon, who works for Pebble in Iliamna. “If there are no jobs, how can we live here?”
Bristol Bay is the world’s most valuable salmon fishery, according to a study by the University of Alaska Anchorage, with a total value of $1.5 billion, including processing, retail and spinoff jobs.
The waters support all five species of Pacific salmon found in North America. Salmon hatch and rear in the rivers and lakes, migrate to sea, then return to fresh water to spawn and die.
From 1990 to 2009, the annual average inshore red salmon run was about 37.5 million fish.
“It’s probably the largest and most pristine of all the salmon fisheries in the world,” said Ray Hilborn, a fisheries professor at the University of Washington. “You couldn’t design a system better for salmon.”
The project’s massive size might require a dam higher than the Washington Monument to hold waste for hundreds to thousands of years after the mine’s production is finished, the EPA said.
EPA Chief Gina McCarthy said her agency would finish its assessment of the mine’s potential impact this year and then decide what to do. She said science would determine the project’s fate.