Over the past several decades, fishermen, business owners, Alaska Native organizations and environmental groups have protested a proposed open-pit copper and gold mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay — a pristine salmon habitat.
Now the federal government is inching toward approving the mining project.
Nestled in southwest Alaska, Bristol Bay is home to the world’s largest wild salmon run. The watershed supports a teeming ecosystem of eagles, grizzlies and beluga whales.
It’s also an economic engine for the Pacific Northwest. Each year, the fishery contributes thousands of seasonal fishing and processing jobs and millions of dollars in economic activity to Washington, Oregon, and California, according to the University of Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research.
Bristol Bay is where the Pebble Limited Partnership, the company developing the mine, plans to build a 10.7-square-mile open-pit mine to dig up copper, gold, molybdenum, and other minerals. The mine would require new infrastructure, including roads, a port and a 188-mile-long natural gas pipeline.
During its 20-year lifespan, the project also would produce millions of tons of hazardous waste that must be stored on site forever. Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership, said that the storage facility would be “fail safe.”
Opponents of the proposed mine are concerned that the federal government is rushing through the permitting process, according to Matt Newman, an Alaska native and attorney for the Native American Rights Fund.
“The people who have been utilizing the resources of Bristol Bay for generations — the Native community, the commercial fishing community, the sports fishing community — have been so strongly unified in their opposition to Pebble because of their connection to the fish and the water,” Newman said. “The Pebble mine is going to affect that way of life.”
Senators want to ‘protect Bristol Bay’
Bristol Bay is a vital natural resource that has provided food and jobs for Alaskans for generations. The watershed has sustained indigenous peoples in Alaska for more than 4,000 years. Today, roughly half of the global supply of wild salmon comes from its commercial fishery.
The bay is thriving. In 2018, more sockeye salmon returned to Bristol Bay than ever before, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Mark Niver has been fishing in Bristol Bay since 1980. He said that he’s concerned about the proposed mine, but not because he’s opposed to development. He’s worked on oil rigs in northern Alaska for British Petroleum since 1977.
“The salmon runs are strong. There’s good money in Bristol Bay,” Niver said. “A mine would create a lot of income, but not for the next 1,000 years.”
Also, the mine would be a public relations problem.
“We sell Alaska seafood on the fact that it comes from pristine crystal clear waters of Alaska — that goes for crab, salmon, pollock, clams, all of it. Now, we won’t be able to claim that any more,” Niver said.
The mine could hurt the market value of Bristol Bay seafood, according to Lindsey Bloom, a spokesperson for Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay.
But Collier, the CEO of the mining company, said the mine will be nearly 100 miles from Bristol Bay and “doesn’t present any significant environmental challenges.”
In 2013, five West Coast senators wrote a letter to then President Barack Obama about the economic threat of the proposed mine.
“This new economic report clearly demonstrates that Bristol Bay is an integral component of the broader Alaska and Pacific Northwest seafood industry. Thousands of family wage jobs rely on Bristol Bay’s world-class salmon runs,” the senators wrote. “For these reasons, we request that the administration act to protect Bristol Bay from any large-scale mining that would threaten our Nation’s vibrant fishing economy.”
The Obama administration Environmental Protection Agency put restrictions on mining in Bristol Bay in 2014, which also prohibits the Army Corps of Engineers from awarding a permit for the Pebble Limited Partnership’s proposed mine.
Since then, the Pebble Limited Partnership has poured millions of dollars into litigation and lobbying in an effort to overturn the EPA’s restrictions. In 2018, the company spent nearly $2 million in lobbying and had one of the 10 largest lobbying contracts on Capitol Hill.
‘A rushed and horribly flawed document’
The man behind the mine is Collier, former chief of staff for environmentalist and former Clinton administration Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt.
Collier and Babbitt now have starkly different opinions about the proposed mine, which could bring Collier a windfall. Documents show that Collier stands to earn $12.5 million if the project gets a permit within four years of applying and $7.5 million if it takes six years.
The proposed mine is on a fast track to get approved. The Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for evaluating the project, hopes to decide whether to issue a permit by mid-2020, less than three years after the Pebble Limited Partnership submitted its application.
“I see my job as making sure that nothing is rushed, no corners are cut, everything is analyzed, that it’s a robust process so we will prevail in that litigation,” Collier said. His bonus also is contingent on the Army Corps’ decision standing up in court.
Last month, the Army Corps released a report, called a draft Environmental Impact Statement, which evaluated the environmental effects of the Pebble Limited Partnership’s plan and several alternatives, including not developing the mine.
Taryn Kiekow Heimer, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council’s campaign against the mine, said that in an effort to stay on pace, the Army Corps is cutting corners. “This is a rushed and horribly flawed document that reflects the Trump administration’s reckless dash towards permitting this mine,” she said.
One of her primary concerns about the Army Corps’ report is that it does not consider the effects of a catastrophic tailings dam failure. Tailings dams, which store the sulfuric acid-generating waste produced during the mineral extraction process, have caused some of the worst mining disasters in history. Just last month in Brazil, a tailings dam collapsed, killing hundreds of people. Bristol Bay residents also remember in 2014 when the Mount Polley tailings dam burst, poisoning drinking water and salmon habitat.
In its report, the Army Corps modeled some spills and noted that a catastrophic tailings dam failure is “extremely unlikely.”
Collier said that the tailings dam at the proposed mine would be “fail safe.” When he was hired in 2014, he oversaw a redesign of the mine, which reduced its size, eliminated the use of cyanide for mineral extraction and included safety improvements to the tailings dam.
“We modeled Mount Polley at Pebble to see what it would do. Doesn’t kill salmon in the bay, doesn’t kill salmon further down the river, doesn’t kill salmon in the eight other watersheds that drain into Bristol Bay. It kills salmon for 20 to 30 kilometers down the north fork of the Koktuli River. And we’re not going to let that happen,” Collier said.
Heimer said that since the Army Corps did not assess this scale of a disaster, it’s impossible to weigh the risks of the proposed mine when deciding whether to issue a permit.
“If the EIS is refusing to aggressively take a look at spill scenarios, it’s going to find that the risk to the environment is very low, and if the risk is low, it’s easy to permit,” Heimer said. “So you can follow the dots and how the Army Corps is going to use this EIS to justify a green light.”
The Army Corps declined to comment on its decision to not assess a major tailings dam failure.
‘The wrong project in the wrong place’
Collier said that he knows the proposed mine can coexist with Bristol Bay because responsible development can still respect conservation. He likes to tell people he learned that from Babbitt.
“I’m not a crazy build-anything-anywhere guy, and I was hired for that reason,” Collier said. “This is so different from what was originally proposed that it no longer deserves the kind of criticism and unfair criticism and attacks that it receives.”
Even after the Pebble Limited Partnership redesigned the mine, many have continued to fight the project. “I believe that a lot of these environmental organizations choose issues in Alaska. They make them cause celebs so they can raise money around them. And they choose Alaska primarily because they don’t have to suffer the backlash from the economic impact of the project being killed because no one gives a rat’s ass what happens in Alaska,” Collier said.
Babbitt, who has degrees in geology and geophysics, condemned Collier’s mine.
“I’ve been looking at and examining mining proposals all over the Western hemisphere for 50 years in various capacities. This one is simply the worst project proposal I have ever examined in terms of its potential damage to the environment,” the former interior secretary said. “If he’s learned anything from me about all of this, it ought to be that this is the wrong project in the wrong place and it ought to be scrapped right now.”
The public has until May 30 to comment on the Army Corps’ Environmental Impact Statement, which includes more than 1,000 pages of scientific analysis.
Niver, the Bristol Bay fisherman, hopes that his representatives will speak out against the proposed mine. But Alaska’s Congressional delegation is saying little about the project and waiting for the Army Corps to complete its process. “They’ve been riding the fence,” Niver said. “They need to make a stand on this.”