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Battle Over Alaska's Bristol Bay Pits Salmon Against Gold

A battle between salmon fishermen, environmentalists and the mining industry has been brewing for over a decade in a remote part of Southwest Alaska.
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A battle between salmon fishermen, environmentalists and the gold mining industry has been brewing for more than a decade in a remote part of Southwest Alaska where the Arctic tundra meets the wetlands, grizzly bears and caribou roam and rivers rich with fish spill out into Bristol Bay.

Alaskans are being forced to choose between protecting one of the most crucial salmon fisheries in the world and a gold mine that brings with it the possibility of thousands of jobs and billions in revenue. Advocates and the Environmental Protection Agency say a major mining project so close to the watershed that feeds the bay would have a tremendous impact on the surrounding environment — including the salmon population.

The showdown will be highlighted when President Barack Obama visits the city of Dillingham, Alaska on Wednesday to talk to fisherman who are convinced the salmon fishery and the Pebble Mine — which could bring in an estimated $64 billion in economic contributions to the region — can’t coexist.

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"You're really going to have to make a choice—turn this into a giant mining district or have the greatest wild salmon fishery in the world," said Tim Bristol, a longtime environmentalist fighting against the mine. "Gold exploration in this part of southwest Alaska started in the late 1980's and plans for the Pebble Mine project became more firm around 2004.

The site is so remote it can only be reached by helicopter. Google maps doesn't even have the exact details.

But that stretch of earth is rich in copper and gold. The Pebble Partnership says it could mine 67 million ounces of gold and 55 billion pounds of copper, which could translate into 15,000 jobs, $18 billion in revenue and $64 billion in economic contributions, according to an economic study commissioned by the company.

“We would make important contributions to the Alaska economy,” said Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for the Pebble Partnership. “It would also be an economic engine for Southwest Alaska — especially the communities closest to the project where people remain very open minded about the potential for development.”

Commercial fisherman, native Alaskans and environmentalist in Bristol Bay have banded together to fight the building of the mine. Bristol Bay provides 40% of America's wild caught seafood and $2 billion dollars in commercial fishing. It's also the single greatest sockeye salmon fishery in the world.

Right now, much of the land is protected by either the federal or state governments, but not the one piece where the potential mine would sit.

The Pebble Mine could result in a pit as deep as the Grand Canyon and produce up to 10 billion tons of acid-generating waste, according to SEC filings.

Workers operate a test drill at the Pebble mine project test in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska near the village of Iliamma, Alaska, in 2007.
Workers operate a test drill at the Pebble mine project test in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska near the village of Iliamma, Alaska, in 2007.AL Grillo / AP file

“The science is clear that mining the Pebble deposit would cause irreversible damage to one of the world’s last intact salmon ecosystems. Bristol Bay’s exceptional fisheries deserve exceptional protection," said Dennis McLerran, regional administrator for EPA for region 10.

The Pebble Mine partnership says the salmon fishery and the gold and copper mine can co-exist and have invested over $150 million dollars on environmental studies to prove it.

In fact, the plan to develop the mine never even got to the permitting process because in 2010 the EPA stepped in, did its own study, and concluded the mine would be too damaging to both salmon and the environment.

The company says this was completely unfair and filed a lawsuit against the EPA. It won an injunction stopping the EPA from taking any further action. The matter is still tied up in court.

The company says all the mine project is looking for is a fair shake.

"It comes back to our key message about wanting to have our project reviewed via the standard, objective and much more transparent (National Environmental Policy Act) review and permitting process," Heatwole said.

The EPA says the three year process was completely transparent and the Pebble Partnership need only apply for a Clean Water Act permit, which it hasn't done.

While the case is tied up in court, the community remains in limbo.

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Former Alaska State Representative Rick Halford insists, “It is the most destructive and the most dangerous kind of mine.” He’s concerned not only over the size of the open-pit mine, larger than any other, but that it’s in the middle of a sensitive watershed.

The project will also need hundreds of miles of new infrastructure and a new port, and Halford says that will degrade the land and cut off streams. Halford and others point to a catastrophic dam breach in Canada at the Mount Polley mine in August 2014. It dumped out 6.5 billion gallons of wastewater destroying part of British Columbia’s watershed.

And that’s exactly what they don’t want to happen in Bristol Bay.

Crewmembers pull in a driftnet loaded with sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay, near Egegik, Alaska, in 2009.
Crewmembers pull in a driftnet loaded with sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay, near Egegik, Alaska, in 2009.Margaret Bauman / AP file

Mine proponents wrote a letter to the president in advance of his visit, touting the merits of the project. Environmentalist and fisherman hope to get on his agenda when he visits.

Senior advisor Brian Deese says the president is aware of the project.

“He's aware of the broader issue on using science to make judgments about when certain activities pose too big a threat to local communities, local ecosystems and local economies,” Deese said. “The EPA has a long and solid track record of using science in that way.”

In December 2014, President Obama signed a memorandum that protects Bristol Bay from oil and gas drilling saying, "These waters are too special and too valuable to offer up to the highest bidder."

Some Republicans said his environmental policies are another example of government overreach and they put the EPA's action on Pebble Mine in the same category. And environmentalists worry that if a Republican takes the presidency in 2016, the move could swing favor back toward the mine. "There is always a risk — there’s a lot of gold and copper in the ground and someone’s always going to have an eye on trying to develop it," Bristol said.