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I'm on a 9 month expedition from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands, exploring environmental issues along the way. I'll be revisiting Pebble in the course of this journey in January 2008. Follow along on the journey blog
The Pebble Mine project is a controversial proposal by Northern Dynasty Minerals to build one of the largest gold and copper mines in the world, in southwest Alaska, near Lake Iliamna. Northern Dynasty has not yet applied for permits, but their current proposal involves both a large open pit and an underground mine, as well as removal of the water from the headwaters of Upper Talarik Creek and the Koktuli River ( important fish habitats).
The site sits at the headwaters of two major Bristol Bay drainages ( Nushagak and Kvichak),
and potentially poses a large threat to the region's water and salmon.
This proposal has become a major political issue in Alaska, pitting pro-mining forces against local native villages and commercial and sport fishermen.
Quick facts on the Pebble Project
- Known as the Pebble Mine or Pebble Creek Mine proposal, the claim encompasses two adjacent areas - Pebble West and Pebble East
- Pebble West would be the largest open pit mine in North America, with an additional large underground block caving mine at Pebble East
- The proposed pit would be about 2 miles wide, and a couple thousand feet deep
- The mine would produce gold, copper, and molybdenum from low grade ores, with an estimated $150 to $200 billion worth of minerals in the ground
- Huge dams: the mine would require two tailings storage lakes engulfing two valleys, with four earthen dams: The largest would be 740 feet tall and 4.3 miles long, with other dams at 700, 400, and 175 feet tall.
- The largest dam alone is larger than Grand Coulee Dam in Washington and the Three Gorges Dam in China (one of the largest dams in the world).
- A road about 90 miles long would carry ore-containing slurry along the shores of Lake Iliamna, to a port on Cook Inlet
The mine would also require more than 250 megawatts of power, which is more electricity than is currently used by the entire Kenai Peninsula. (Source: Crowd mines Pebble for answers.
Northern Dynasty asks residents to withhold judgment, by Carey James,
Homer Tribune, Oct 6 2005). Northern Dynasty plans to get power through natural gas, via Homer Electric and a powerline run across Cook Inlet (Northern Dynasty meeting, 11/15/06)
- current mine plans and permit applications can be found at the Alaska DNR page on the Pebble project
- Northern Dynasty says it has not decided whether or not to use cyanide to process the gold (this highly toxic chemical is the most common method of gold extraction at modern mines).
- This mine would be only one small part of an enormous Bristol Bay Mining District, covering hundreds of square miles (see the red blob of mine claims on this map)
- In addition to this mining district, there are other blocks of mining claims scattered throughout the Bristol Bay watershed, and BLM lands that the BLM has recently proposed to open for mining (the Pebble Mine site and surrounding mining district are on Alaska state land).
- The metal-containing ores at Pebble are rich in sulfide minerals. This means they can generate acid when exposed to air and water, possibly producing Acid Mine Drainage (a major source of water pollution at mines).
- No Net Loss: Northern Dynasty maintains it has a "no net loss" policy for fisheries in the area. According to them (Northern Dynasty meeting, 11/15/06),
this means that fish lost due to their industry can be compensated for by "increasing the productive capacity of some habitats", "opening new watersheds to anadromous access" and "conservation management of large tracts of land".
Map of the proposed Pebble Mine, and the Bristol Bay region
Located near Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks, and Lake Iliamna, 12 miles from the nearest village (Nondalton).
In the Bristol Bay watershed, in Southwest Alaska.
the Pebble claim is on Alaska state land
the proposed pit sits in the Pebble Valley, at the headwaters of two small creeks - Upper
Talarik Creek and the Koktuli River.
Downstream these creeks join and contribute to two of the world's largest salmon spawning rivers - Nushagak and the Kvichak
Northern Dynasty has asked for water rights to remove all the water in the two creeks. (map of the mine site with the proposed water withdrawal from Upper Talarik Creek.)
The proposed mine site is socated in an earthquake-prone area, near the Lake Clark (also known as Castle Mountain) fault.
- The company exploring the claim is Northern Dynasty Minerals, a Canadian company based in Vancouver, BC.
- The piece of Northern Dynasty Minerals running the Pebble Project is called Northern Dynasty Mines.
- Bruce Jenkins is the Northern Dynasty COO, Ken Brower is the head engineer (working for NDM through Knight Piesold Consulting), Stephen Day does the water quality studies, Mike Smith does permitting, and Jim Buell is the fisheries guy.
- They've spent $132 million already on exploration
- Northern Dynasty doesn't operate any mines now - the only thing they're doing is exploration at Pebble.
- about 10% of the company is owned by Rio Tinto, a major worldwide mining company.
- NDM is applying for some permits right now (October 2006) - notably water rights and dam permits.
- Exploration efforts continue, and they say the earliest they'll apply for major permits is the end of 2007 or early 2008d
- The BLM is also planning to open its land in the area to mining, and comments on their draft proposal are due January 5.
- Metal ores are common throughout the Bristol Bay region and the Alaska Peninsula, due to the area's volcanic history.
- We've known about the ores for decades, but the remote location and low grade of the ore prevented development.
- In the past few years, metal prices have doubled or tripled, largely due to investments, making development of these ores suddenly worthwhile.
- Mining companies around the world are setting their sights on Southwest Alaska.
Fish and wildlife:
All five species of Pacific Salmon, as well as Rainbow Trout, Arctic Grayling, Northern Pike, Dolly Varden, Lake Trout, Arctic Char, and Whitefishes live and spawn in the waterways downstream of the proposed Pebble Mine.
The Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers have some of the world's largest sockeye salmon runs (in the tens of millions), and the Nushagak has one of the world's largest king salmon runs.
Sport fishermen come from all over the world to fish Bristol Bay's rivers and streams, known for their salmon and trophy trout (some 30 inches long!).
Upper Talarik Creek, for which Northern Dynasty has applied to drain the headwaters, is a major salmon spawning stream and trophy trout stream.
This area is home to the 100,000 member Mulchatna caribou herd, the third largest in Alaska. This herd depends on the tundra vegetation in the uplands near the mine site, and sometimes calves in the Pebble Valley.
Numerous grizzly bears (eating the salmon) and moose (eating the riverside willows) also make their homes here.
Migratory birds come from all over the world to nest and feed in the rich wetlands around these rivers.
Lake Iliamna is the largest freshwater lake in Alaska (about 70 miles long), and home to one of only two populations of freshwater seals in the world.
- See the Pebble Mine scorecard for the most thorough list of those groups opposed to and supporting the Pebble project.
- Major forces opposing the mine include local native communities and organizations, fishing interests, environmental groups, and concerned citizens.
- Senator Ted Stevens has expressed his opposition to the mine, saying he's "very disturbed by the prospect"
- Most native communities and organizations in the area oppose the Pebble Mine and all large-scale mining in the area, including
Nondalton, New Stuyahok, Koliganek, Dillingham, Kakhanok, Ekwok, Aleknagik, Manokotak, Togiak, Clarks Point, and Port Alsworth.
- Sample resolutions opposing the mine from Nunumta Aulukestai (Caretakers of Our Land) - a council of 8 local native corporations,
and the Bristol Bay Native Association (a regional native corporation serving 31 tribes).
- Commercial and sport fishing interests opposing the mine include the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association, Fly Fisherman Magazine, and the Alaska Wilderness Recreation & Tourism Assoc.
- Environmental groups working on the issue include the Renewable Resources Coalition, Trout Unlimited, the Bristol Bay Alliance, and American Rivers, and the National Wildlife Federation.
- Other notable opponents include the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Magazine, and the chairman of the American Conservative Union.
- Polling data: 70% of local residents oppose the mine. Statewide, 53 percent of voters say they are opposed to the opening of Pebble Mine, 28 percent are in favor and 19 percent are undecided.
- New Governor Sarah Palin hasn't taken a clear stance yet.
- but the state of Alaska has never yet denied a mining permit.
Mining's track record
- Northern Dynasty estimates there is $150 to $200 billion worth of minerals in the ground, mostly copper and gold, though it can't all be recovered (current estimate from Bruce Jenkins, NDM COO, November 2006).
- Over 70% of the demand for gold is for gold jewelry, and the US is the second largest market (after India), for such jewelry (data from the
World Gold Council)
- Compared to other industries, mining gives almost nothing back to state and local governments. Mining Taxes vs. Oil and Gas Taxes
"State revenue from mining generally amounts to only about 0.7% of the mined resource value, while an additional 1% is paid to municipalities. State revenue from oil and gas amounts to about 20% of total production value, while an additional 2% is paid to municipalities. State revenue from fisheries amount to about 2.8% of the total production value, while an additional 2.5% is paid to municipalities, excluding property tax, vessel and license fees."
- Alaska state rep Paul Seaton.
- Jobs dependent on Bristol Bay fish and wildlife bring in $175 million in annual payroll. Economics of Bristol Bay's Fisheries
- Having a mine claim does not give Northern Dynasty a right to mine.
The state can deny permits without paying Northern Dynasty anything.
the Federal Issue
Quotes from Northern Dynasty:
"Environmental Risks: Unexpected environmental damage from spills, accidents and severe acts of nature such as earthquakes are risks which may not be fully insurable and if catastrophic could mean the total loss of shareholders' equity." (Source: Northern Dynasty's 2004 Annual Report, Pg. 9, June 30, 2004, www.sedar.com)
"Northern Dynasty's Management May Not Be Subject to U.S. Legal Process. As Canadian citizens and residents certain of Northern Dynasty's directors and officers may not subject themselves to U.S. legal proceedings, so that recovery on judgments issued by U.S. courts may be difficult or impossible."
(Source: Northern Dynasty's 2004 Annual Report, Pg. 9, June 30, 2004, www.sedar.com)
- Drilling in Upper Talarik Creek?
"We made a commitment to stay out of the Upper Talarik Creek because it is
sensitive fish habitat." -Ella Ede, Northern Dynasty, (Source: Lake
Dumping in Pebble's Future? Hal Spence, Kenai Peninsula Clarion, July 5,
"'Forget it,' Jenkins said he told company engineers. 'I said leave Upper
Talarik Creek alone.'" -Bruce Jenkins, Northern Dynasty, (Source: Golden
Jitters: Massive Mine Worries Locals Paula Dobbyn, Anchorage Daily News.
October 18th, 2004.)
"They have and are doing some drilling in the Upper Talarik Creek
Watershed. (Source: -Division of Mining Land and Water, Alaska Department of Natural
Resources, describing Northern Dynasty activities as of July 11, 2005.)
July 2006 - Northern Dynasty applies for water rights permits to remove all the water in the headwaters of Upper Talarik Creek.
(Source: Alaska DNR)
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All content by Erin McKittrick, copyright 2006-2007. Contact me with comments or questions at mckittre at gmail dot com.
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Last modified: 2/11/2007