Conservation And The Clash of American Ideals

Alaska’s Pebble Mine—weighing risk and reward in the land of opportunity.

America is still a young country, and the time of frontier debates has not yet ended. The nation still seeks itself, inevitably confronting difficult and potentially tragic decisions. Indeed, perhaps this is just what’s needed in American politics today, classic confrontations to remind citizens of what the country has stood for and to ponder what its future will be; confrontations that force us to weigh risk and reward in a world desperate for leadership, and in a nation renowned for its ability to generate wealth, opportunity and power.

In the water-soaked tundra of southwest Alaska, just such an iconic confrontation has emerged between economic opportunity and wildlife conservation. At issue is the proposed Pebble Mine, a controversial operation that, if approved, would create one of the world’s largest mineral extraction projects, situated at the headwaters of some of the world’s most productive salmon rivers. It’s hard to imagine a more defined debate than this. It begs questions that have been at the heart of North America conservation, and the heart of American capitalism and entrepreneurship, since Theodore Roosevelt led the finely balanced charge for wise use of natural resources, and the protection of wildlife and wilderness, a century ago. Is there opportunity here, and for whom? And is the reward worth the risk?

By The Numbers

The area in question lies within the ecologically sensitive and fish rich Bristol Bay Watershed. It supports a spongy ecosystem of lacework waterways, boasting all five major species of salmon: chinook, chum, coho, pink and most notably, sockeye, the latter with an annual run that can average 37.5 million fish! No surprise that the region supports a sustainable $500 million per year commercial and sport fishing industry. But the watershed also nurtures nearly 200 bird species, and 40 species of mammals, including North American icons such as caribou, moose and the magnificent, salmon-addicted bears. It is a ripened oasis of incredible biological diversity. Bristol Bay isn’t just spectacular by Alaskan standards; it’s a globally significant hatchery for one of the world’s greatest wild food fisheries, and an unspoiled paradise for hunters and anglers. The word “irreplaceable” was created for such places.

The application to mine the Pebble ore deposit at Bristol Bay would require massive infrastructure, and result in gross landscape changes to the vulnerable Bristol Bay Region. It proposes construction of what would become the largest open pit mine in existence, measuring 7 square miles in width, and gouged to a depth of .75 miles. It would reduce many more square miles of pristine wilderness to an industrialized landscape with roads, transmission lines and pipelines. It would require more electrical power than the Kenai Peninsula, would burn millions of gallons of fuel and produce carbon emissions equal to that of a small African country. This is industry on a colossal scale with potential revenue of similar proportion. By late 2013, more than $760 million had been spent on exploration alone. Nothing about Pebble Mine is small.

The pit, and other below surface excavations, would produce an estimated 10.8 billion tons of waste rock, and the ore extraction process would create at least 2.5 billion tons of toxic tailings. The proposal requires access to Upper Talaric Creek and to the Koktuli River to provide the approximately 35 billion gallons of ground/surface water required every year. Much of this would become wastewater, to be stored in man-made lakes, covering 19 square miles and contained by up to 9 miles of massive dams, some reaching 740 feet in height.

It is the perpetual storage of these tailings that poses the greatest environmental risk for the fisheries of Bristol Bay, and the entire ecosystem that thrives in this waterlogged region. The record of tailing containment failures around the world leaves little doubt that the possibility of dam breakage, or slower, continuous leakage of acidic material, is relatively high, particularly over lengthening periods of time, and especially after the mine has closed. Who then will be watching a mine that no longer provides profit? What is beyond speculation is that even tiny amounts of dissolved minerals, such as copper, could have devastating effects on the salmon runs that form the basis of this incredible ecosystem.

The proposed project is owned by Pebble Limited Partnership, which originally involved some true mining heavyweights, including Northern Dynasty Minerals, Rio Tinto, Anglo American, and Mitsubishi. With a predicted return on capital investment within 3.2 years, and an overall ore market value estimated at $300 billion (that’s with a b!) over the life of the mine, it’s easy to see why the original partners saw an opportunity to make a fantastic return on investment. Pebble is, after all, potentially the largest gold and copper mine in North America, having also an ore body rich in other valued metals. So why now, several years later, is the Pebble Ltd. Partnership comprised of only Northern Dynasty Minerals? Where have all the giants gone?

Well, the simple answer is, they’ve gone away. In a conspicuous pattern, Mitsubishi divested its 9.1 percent share in the mine in 2011, followed in 2013 by London-based Anglo American, which divested its substantial 50 percent share and abandoned a $541 million investment. Then, in April 2014, the Spanish mining giant Rio Tinto followed suit, and actually gifted its 19.1 percent interest to two Alaskan charities, which subsequently sold the gifted shares. Each of these major players decided to take a loss and forego any opportunity to benefit from Pebble Mine’s indisputably rich ore body. Such retreats from investment and potential profit mark an unusual turn around, even for the volatile mining business.

While the companies state their decisions were based on broad strategic considerations, there is much speculation that the intense public opposition to the Pebble Mine has been at least part of the play. It does appear that for these giants of industry, though experienced with controversy and the hard-nosed business of politics and the market place, the reputation risk associated with Pebble Mine outweighed the potential reward. Certainly, most communities and tribal organizations in the region oppose the project, despite the job opportunities it could provide; and so do a wide coalition of conservation groups, as well as some globally recognized jewelry and seafood companies.

Pebble Mine is beginning to resemble a game changing debate in the world of conservation, a debate Theodore Roosevelt would have delighted in, and one he would have encouraged every hunter and angler to engage. He would have reminded us that we are in a unique position to understand the value of such wild places, and while wise use of resources is something we should stand for and support, there might be times when development simply must be denied.

Is the Pebble Mine such an issue? Is this such a time? I encourage every North American hunter and angler to learn more about the Pebble Mine proposal, to ask themselves this question, and to make up their own mind. Above all, like Roosevelt, I encourage sportsmen to engage in this debate. It is our right and our responsibility to do so.

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