Pebble Mine and the Alaska Natives of Bristol Bay

by

Yupik Woman in Dillingham, Alaska near Bristol Bay. Photo by Michael Melford, National Geographic.

The mining industry is a cornerstone of Alaska’s economy and one mineral exploration project, Pebble Mine, in the Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska has led to much controversy.  Pebble Mine is projected to be the largest open pit mine in North America, expected to produce over 10 billion tons of copper, gold, and molybdenum—along with a similar amount of waste.

The proposed site of the mine is at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay, home to North America’s largest King salmon run.  The land downstream of this site belongs to the Yup’ik, Aleut, and Dena’ina Athabascan tribes, many of whom rely on subsistence harvesting  of salmon, as well as on the economic stability of jobs with Bristol Bay fisheries.

The greatest risks posed by Pebble Mine are the destruction of salmon spawning habitats, poisoning of salmon by mining waste, and contamination of groundwater.  This in turn poses a significant threat to the food and water security of Alaska Natives downstream.

For people who rely heavily on the land, this threat could have significant health effects, including exposure to toxins; reliance on less culturally-acceptable foods of lower nutritional value; and a limited ability to afford health care and other necessities due to economic hardship.

Opposition to Pebble Mine has made allies of conservation groups, Native corporations, and commercial and sport fishermen, all of whom are awaiting the final results of the EPA’s watershed assessment. Meanwhile, debates continue over the mine permitting process in the state.

Pebble Mine should not be allowed on this critical land given the adverse impacts it will have on the environment and the physical and cultural wellbeing of Alaska Natives. The EPA should use its authority under the Clean Water Act to prohibit Pebble Mine from discharging waste, effectively halting mining operations in Bristol Bay.

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10 Responses to “Pebble Mine and the Alaska Natives of Bristol Bay”

  1. jlweinberg Says:

    I thought your blog did a nice job touching on the many threats posed by Pebble Mine. It seems that this one industry carries such immense impacts on its surroundings–both positively through providing economic and natural resources and, significantly, negatively through the numerous threatening impacts on the surrounding environment and local people. Likely, these impacts have even wider reaching impacts of the regional and global community via environmental destruction and pollution impacting food and water supplies and cultural impacts from disruption and health impacts on humans and wildlife.

    My understanding is that the Clean Water Act provides statutory regulation and nonregulatory tools to prevent pollutant discharges into waterways in order to protect water resources and the related wildlife. It seems that there has been some recent concerns about the effectiveness of this statute in actually impacting water protection.

    How do you think the EPA and other stakeholders can more effectively achieve the goals of protecting waterways and their surroundings?

    Thanks!
    –Jennifer

  2. kldrake Says:

    Thanks for your comment Jennifer. I believe you are correct in your assessment of the Clean Water Act. From the EPA website:

    “The CWA gives EPA the authority to set effluent limits on an industry-wide (technology-based) basis and on a water-quality basis that ensure protection of the receiving water. The CWA requires anyone who wants to discharge pollutants to first obtain an NPDES permit, or else that discharge will be considered illegal.

    The CWA allowed EPA to authorize the NPDES Permit Program to state governments, enabling states to perform many of the permitting, administrative, and enforcement aspects of the NPDES Program.”

    So states also can be involved in the permitting process, which perhaps gives the EPA less “power” in enforcing the act. However, in this case, the EPA’s involvement was requested by the opponents of Pebble Mine with the intention of appealing to the CWA as a way to halt the mine. Hopefully this will allow the EPA to be more effective in applying the CWA.

    There are other options for trying to stop the discharge of mine waste into Bristol Bay. State senators have proposed a bill that would add legislative oversight to the process of permitting mines in the Bristol Bay area. While this might have some of its own issues, it also potentially gives more “teeth” to the opinions and desires of the people affected by the mine via their representatives in the senate. (http://juneauempire.com/state/2012-02-29/bristol-bay-mines-bill-hits-senate-committee)

    In October 2011, voters in the boroughs near Bristol Bay passed an initiative that changed borough law “to forbid the granting of permits for any big mine that would have a “significant adverse impact” on salmon streams.” (http://www.adn.com/2011/10/17/2124678/results-are-due-later-today-for.html#storylink=misearch). However, that initiative has been legally challenged by the Pebble Limited Partnership (as well as the attorney general).

    Another thought I had (although some of the intricacies of EPA processes are not entirely clear to me) is that the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium could request the EPA to also perform a Health Impact Assessment, focusing specifically on the potential effects on human health (rather than the environment) that the mine could have. Maybe bringing the focus specifically to the Alaska Natives affected would generate more support, sympathy, and a sense of responsibility to tribal health by the state of Alaska. This may already be initiated, but I didn’t come across much information about it in my searches if it is. (http://www.anthc.org/chs/ces/hiap/)

    -Kelsey

    • jlweinberg Says:

      Thanks for the additional insights Kelsey! You seem to have a really good grasp of the issues and context. I like your point that state legislation could empower local constituents (and stakeholders!) to have more influence via their government representation.

      I also thought the local Bristol Bay initiative was interesting. The narrow margin by which it passed and the degree of controversy and contention around the issues reflects some of the tension between the benefits of the mine versus the hazards for the local area.

      Thanks!
      -Jennifer

  3. aquinte2 Says:

    Kelsey,

    Great post. I enjoyed reading it. Some thoughts that I had while reading it are below.

    The mining industry clearly is introducing third party effects, and in circumstances when these effects affect society as significantly as you have noted, there is no doubt that government intervention is warranted. Many economists and political scientists argue, however, that even government interventions have the potential for introducing their own third party effects on society.

    In you opinion, what do you think might be some unintended consequences to the EPA’s involvement as you propose? I ask, not because I want to suggest that they not get involved, but rather, because a well-crafted plan for effective intervention will account for potential unintended consequences and take appropriate measures to prevent them.

    In my opinion, it seems that halting operations all together as you propose would result in many workers losing employment and income, and without such resources, there may be ripple effects that impact individuals’ health in other ways. Consider that this is particularly true in regions with economies that rely on industrial operations.

    Might there be less drastic measures that the EPA could take, that wouldn’t entirely do away with these operations, but rather may result in cleaner and more environmentally-friendly operations?

    Regards,

    Andres

  4. kldrake Says:

    Thank you for your comments, Andres. I understand your point about considering unintended consequences of EPA involvement, but just to clarify, this particular mine is in the exploration phase at this point. Thus, there are not any mine workers currently employed actually working the mine. Pebble Limited Partnership is still in the permitting process and working on releasing development plans. So if the EPA’s assessment finds that the plans for the mine violate the CWA, the mine would be prevented from even beginning operations.

    The economy in the Bristol Bay region is a huge issue in this debate. While many Alaskans — native and non-native — make a living off of salmon fishing in the bay area, these are still rural communities that are in need of additional economic opportunities. The argument for the development of Pebble Mine is that it will in fact provide jobs for the region and the mine is expected to be productive for at least 100 years. The opposing argument is that the mine, while creating mining jobs, will result in the loss of fishing jobs (it seems that the number of fishing jobs outnumber the proposed number of mining jobs in most estimates) because of destruction of the salmon spawning habitat. Also, salmon (if protected and fished appropriately) are a renewable resource and will potentially serve as a source of income for people in the region for much longer than 100 years. The opinions of Alaskans regarding this economic debate are split — Natives who currently don’t make a living off of salmon or who are hurting financially may support the mine, while their neighbors do not. This is certainly not a black and white issue for Alaskans, native and non-native.

    Finally, one last thought about other ways the EPA could make operations perhaps more environmentally friendly rather than shutting them down altogether — this area is also seismically active. There are many concerns that the methods by which Pebble Limited Partnership is proposing to store waste will not withstand large earthquakes, presenting an even bigger problem for the area if walls/barriers are destroyed and a large amount of waste is released into the water in an acute manner.

    –Kelsey

  5. badcafos Says:

    Kelsey, great topic!

    I must say this is one really struck home with me because I was born and raised in Alaska. (Fairbanks) Although I am not a “native” this topic crosses both those who are and are not and I imagine it is a rather heated discussion!

    For as long as I can remember the fishing industry has been a pillar to the Alaskan economy. There is nothing more spectacular than watching a salmon run. I would truly hate to see that in jeopardy. I have read that mines not only are a point source pollutant, but also can cause something called acid mine drainage? Would that be a concern if Pebble mining occurs? Some salmon such as the sockeye salmon are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. With such species being endangered does this also support the opposition for Pebble Mine? Just curious on your thoughts.

    Again wonderful read!

    • kldrake Says:

      Thanks for the comments! I was also born and raised in Alaska (Anchorage) and am in fact on my way there right now to visit family 🙂

      To answer your question about acid mine drainage, one of the concerns about the waste that Pebble Mine would generate is the presence of reactive sulfides in the deposit area. When exposed to air/water, this can form sulfuric acid. This would be very problematic for salmon and other life in these waters. (http://ourbristolbay.com/waste-disposal.html)

      As far as the salmon go, sockeye salmon are listed under the US Endangered Species Act but only in areas in the Lower 48, such as the Snake River (Idaho/Oregon/Washington). Thus, this status doesn’t really apply to the Bristol Bay region.

  6. ruthjhsph Says:

    Great post and controversial topic. I can appreciate both sides of the argument as your outline in your post and replies to comments. You are clearly well-versed on this topic. I wonder if a salmon hatchery would help alleviate some of the consequences if the mining is allowed?

    • kldrake Says:

      Thank you for your comment. One of the appeals of Alaskan salmon is that they are in fact wild and not the product of hatcheries. Other areas of the Pacific Northwest have used hatcheries to replace depleted salmon populations, which resulted from destruction of salmon habitats. This is not to say that Alaska does not have salmon hatcheries, but I think this would be a last resort for the Alaskan fishing industry in Bristol Bay if the wild stock can be preserved. Protecting the habitat of the salmon is likely the best first approach.

  7. kakuete Says:

    Thank you for your post! I’m really enjoying the dialogue that it has created I really see each sides point and am interested to see what the long term goal or potential benefits of the mine would be for the company, and the economy of the region. Do you think there are any real long term benefits that could sway people away from your stance?

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