Open Pit Mining: The Growing Threat to Alaska's Bristol Bay Ecosystem

A moose grazes along the bank of Alaska's Mulchata River - Erin McKitterick Threats to Alaska's wilderness—such as global warming, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and destructive logging—have made news headlines in recent years, but there is another dangerous situation that has mostly been kept under wraps. Currently in the exploration phase, the Pebble Gold and Copper Mine Project plans to create the biggest open pit mine in North America, as well as the largest dam in the world.

The plan has been mounting since it was first presented in 2001 by the Canadian company Northern Dynasty Minerals. In 2007, Northern Dynasty formed a 50:50 partnership with London-based Anglo American, the global mining leader. While they prepare to apply for development permits in 2009, these companies plan to spend $100 million on exploratory drilling in 2008.

In this pristine ecosystem, labrador tea flowers grow on the tundra - Erin McKitterick"Open pit mining" refers to the extraction of minerals close to the surface of the earth through an open pit—as opposed to underground mining, which requires tunneling into the earth for minerals. The pebble mine would be two miles wide, several thousand feet deep, and require 58,000 one-ton blasts every year. The proposal also includes the building of an underground mine, the removal of massive amounts of water from Upper Talarik Creek and the Koktuli River (both important fish habitats), and the construction of the world's largest dam to hold all of the associated waste. Less than 1 percent of the extracted material resulting from this destruction will hold any value.

Over 99 percent of rock in the giant dam will end up as "tailings," nothing but leftover material. Tailings dams contain toxic ponds full of pollutants including cyanide, sulfuric acid, arsenic, and a slew of heavy metals. The risk of toxic spills and leakages from these unconventionally sized dams is enormous, particularly because this area is an earthquake-prone zone and in close proximity to the active volcano, Mt. Iliamna.

Map of AlaskaThe proposed site for Pebble Mine is in beautiful Southwest Alaska, near Lake Iliamna and Lake Clark, at the headwaters of the Mulchatna/Nushagak River and Newhalen/Kvichak River drainages—which both feed into Bristol Bay. The area is currently undeveloped, with no roads, no cars, and no telephone poles. There are simply miles of rolling tundra, lush forests and rivers; pure wilderness surrounded by a handful of native communities. Northern Dynasty says it will construct an open pit mine in the Pebble Valley and dam and reroute nearby rivers to contain all of the toxic waste.

Because the site is so remote, simply providing power and access to the unfettered area could have significant negative ecological effects. The current plans to power the project involve a submarine cable stretching across the Cook Inlet. The construction of a 104-mile access road is also planned. The road would fragment aquatic and terrestrial wildlife habitats, connecting the mine to the port site in the Cook Inlet and intersecting roughly 100 streams along the way. It is estimated that the road will have a footprint of 12.5 square miles; however, the long-term effect will be significantly greater because it will open the inaccessible areas to human traffic.

Caribou habitats would be put at stake if the Pebble Mine project is realizedThe unique Bristol Bay region is renowned for possessing the largest salmon runs on the planet, and for housing hearty populations of rainbow trout, grizzly bears, moose, caribou, myriad migratory birds, and one of only two colonies of freshwater seals in the world.  The planned water removal, habitat destruction, and the huge risk of water pollution could be disastrous for the entire ecosystem.

Copper is one of the most toxic heavy metals to fish, and it can limit the production of algae—an essential food source for aquatic organisms, whose decline would affect other species higher up the food chain. Even small amounts of copper can destroy a salmon's olfactory sense, which can leave a fish dangerously disoriented because of its role in navigating streams and distinguishing predators from prey. Copper can also impair the fish immune response.

The Nushagak River and its surrounding landscapes are home to myriad diverse speciesDecreased fish productivity due to habitat loss is another worrisome outcome. The removal of 70 million gallons of water a day from the Koktuli River and the Upper Tolarik Creek threaten the salmon and other fish species that use the creeks for spawning, rearing and overwintering. Since salmon are andronomous and characteristically return to their birth place to spawn, any destruction of their habitat could halt reproduction. Habitat loss is a major concern for the Bristol Bay's native wildlife, with the likely destruction of denning sites for grizzly bears, nesting and feeding sites for migratory birds, and feeding and calving sites for the Mulchatna caribou herd population.

Even if precautions are taken, it is inevitable that fine material such as dust will wash into the waterways and begin to accumulate, introducing toxins and degrading water quality. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that mining activities have polluted over 40 percent of the headwaters in the Western United States.

A Bonaparte's gull takes off from the top of a spruce tree near the Mulchatna RiverAlthough most of the lower 48 have been overdeveloped, Alaska stands as a wildlife haven, drawing almost 2 million tourists a year. A large number of Alaskans are against the plans, though many are lured in by talk of short-term profits that overshadow the unsustainable nature of the mine. Fortunately, a diverse group of stakeholders including local Alaskan natives, environmental organizations, commercial and recreational fishing groups, and Members of Congress (including the typically pro-development Republican Senator Ted Stevens) are vocal opponents of the plan.

The fight for Alaska's wild places has forged on for years, and neither side seems to be faltering. If the Pebble Mine project moves forward, the door would be opened for other similar mining projects in Bristol Bay. This outcome would not only threaten Alaska's wildlife and its unadulterated landscape, but it would also contribute to the rapid disappearance of true wilderness in the United States.