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In Fight over Alaskan Mine, Public Interest Turns to Science

DILLINGHAM, ALASKA—Every summer, salmon by the millions swim from Bristol Bay up into the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers, bound for tundra waters where they repeat the primeval cycle of spawning before death. But the discovery of other natural riches beneath the tundra—a vast lode of copper, gold, and other minerals—is raising deep questions about the future of the salmon and the region itself.

While Bristol Bay may be the most productive wild salmon fishery remaining in the world, a plan under development by an international consortium would put one of the world’s biggest mines in the watershed that feeds the bay. It is called the Pebble Mine, and when the AAAS Arctic Division convened here recently, elected officials, Alaska native leaders, and Pebble’s CEO joined with scientists, fishermen, educators, and students to explore a critical question of science and engineering:


A future mine? A proposal by the Pebble Limited Partnership, a global mining consortium, could put a massive pit and underground mine on the Alaskan tundra upriver from Bristol Bay salmon fisheries.
[Photo © Tim Troll]

Can a mine be developed in a sensitive environment and an active earthquake zone without endangering the fishery and the communities that depend on it?

“It’s unusual to see a scientific meeting become a forum for public engagement on a regional scale,” said Lawrence K. Duffy, executive director of the AAAS Arctic Division. “But it certainly was inspiring.”

The annual Arctic Division meeting—held for the first time in the Alaskan Bush—convened 21 to 24 September at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Bristol Bay Campus. More than 75 scientists, policy-makers, and others attended from Alaska, the Lower 48, Canada, and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, and at a half-day Pebble Mine forum, they were joined by more than 150 local residents in the Dillingham Middle School gymnasium. The meeting was organized by Duffy; division president Todd Radenbaugh, director of the campus Environmental Science Lab; and Al Teich, senior science policy adviser at AAAS and liaison to the division.

The controversy over the proposed mine has already inspired lawsuits, special elections, and an intensive public relations campaign—and the fight is likely to escalate. What the Arctic Division meeting made clear, however, was that science will be critically important both to public opinion and policy decisions on the project.

Researchers at the meeting said the mine would pose an array of risks, from dust and fuel spills to habitat destruction and dissolved copper contaminating the Bristol Bay watershed. For John Shively, chief executive officer of Pebble Limited Partnership, the key is whether engineering and technology can neutralize those risks. He said the mining consortium has thus far invested $120 million and hired some 500 researchers to conduct “the largest science project ever undertaken for any mining project anywhere in the world.”

The Pebble site is about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, on undeveloped state-owned land just north of Lake Iliamna, one of the biggest lakes in North America. Exploratory studies over the past decade have revealed an awesome lode: 10.75 billion tons of ore, containing an estimated 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum, and 107.4 million ounces of gold, plus smaller amounts of silver, rhenium, and palladium. The estimated value: $300 billion to $500 billion.


Community-wide discussion
. Researchers, policy-makers, fishermen, students, and others joined in the Pebble Mine forum at the AAAS Arctic Division meeting.

The mine would require a huge investment and a supreme feat of modern engineering. While Pebble has not yet detailed its plans or applied for a permit, some accounts say an open pit at the mine could measure over two square miles and 1700 feet deep. Dams would be built to create underwater storage for mine wastes; one earthen dam would rise to 740 feet—higher than the Hoover Dam. Roads, pipelines, and massive electricity and water treatment plants would be built to support the effort.

If the mine is fully developed, there might be 10 billion tons of waste ore stored underwater and behind dams at the site. In technical sessions, researchers offered a troubling scenario: Water leaching through sulfide-sulfur wastes could create an acid solution strong enough to dissolve remaining traces of copper and other metals. The copper could migrate down through the porous silt, sand, and gravel beneath the tailings, first contaminating groundwater and then welling up into streams and lakes.

Even low levels of dissolved copper could be “highly toxic” to fish, said biologist Sarah O’Neal, associate director of Fisheries Research & Consulting. “Two to 10 parts per billion ... can impair a salmon’s ability to smell—its ability to recognize mates, to recognize prey or predators.” Such contamination also could disrupt its sense of direction, reducing its ability to navigate upstream to spawn.

Mine wastes also could be released by earthquakes or by floods and droughts associated with climate change, researchers said. Pebble might be mined-out after 100 years, but the risk would endure in perpetuity.

Shively acknowledged at the forum that Pebble’s studies show transfer from groundwater to waterways beyond the mine site. But Pebble will plan to prevent that, and if environmental safety cannot be ensured, he said, “it’s going to be very, very difficult” to proceed.

In a region slowly losing population, Pebble says, the mine would create about 2000 jobs during construction and about 1000 high-skill, high-wage operating jobs for 25 years or more. In addition, Pebble says spending on the project would create an economic surge in the region and generate a windfall in tax revenue.

Many fishermen and others in the Bristol Bay region see a different equation: If the mine threatens a salmon industry that creates thousands of full- and part-time jobs and generates $400 million to $500 million a year, sustainably, why risk it? “It scares the hell out of me,” said commercial fisherman Pete Andrew, a board member of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation.

Opponents are preparing for a battle that could last decades, much as conservationists have fought since the 1970s to block oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Meanwhile, research will continue. By year’s end, Shively said, Pebble will release a massive “environmental baseline document” of 53 chapters and 20,000 pages. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this year announced a comprehensive scientific assessment of the Bristol Bay region that could be completed in the fall of 2012.

To learn more about Pebble discussions at the 2011 AAAS Arctic Division meeting, visit