Is Alaska's Pebble Mine the Next Keystone XL?

The push to open a gold-and-copper mine in a rich fishing area has split Alaskans along unusual political lines.
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The shore of Bristol Bay near Naknek, Alaska (Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska's Bristol Bay region, adjacent to the Bering Sea in the state's southwest corner, is rich with large and productive reserves of natural resources. One of those resources, the world's largest sockeye-salmon fishery, generates an estimated $1.5 billion annually. The thousands of pristine acres of surrounding wetlands, ponds, and lakes are treasured because there isn't much untouched land left in America. Bristol Bay is also home to a large population of Alaska Natives, whose cultures and lifestyles revolve around the region's "wildness" and especially its salmon. Those are the living, breathing resources of Bristol Bay. And then there are the inorganic resources—oil and gas and mineral deposits, not yet fully explored or exploited but representing a whole lot more wealth than Alaska's accessing now.

A particularly significant deposit of gold, molybdenum, and copper—the largest known untapped copper deposit in the world, in fact—has been identified in Bristol Bay. It's known as the Pebble prospect. A Canadian company called Northern Dynasty Minerals started exploring the area in 2000. In 2007, Northern Dynasty partnered with U.K.-based Anglo American to form the Pebble Partnership and buy the rights to all the minerals in the deposit. The corporation's plans to build the "Pebble Mine" have yet to progress much beyond the idea stage, as the Pebble Partnership website says itself:

What is the Pebble Mine?

Right now, it’s an idea. An idea that could help power our nation’s green energy initiatives. An idea that could bring jobs and infrastructure to Southwest Alaska, helping families remain in their villages and thrive. An idea that all of this is possible in harmony with the environment.

The Pebble Mine has yet to be built because the process of getting state and federal permits for a project of this size is long, but also because it's highly controversial. The mine pits two of Alaska's biggest industries—fishing and mining, both of which are extractive, but only one of which is "sustainable"—against each other in a classic resource war: Weighing gold against salmon is weighing money against nature.

According to one school of thought, it’s a calculation that ought to be left to Alaskans. The Pebble Partnership promises to create jobs and bring in revenue, and the state residents—who will feel the effects either way—should know best whether this would do more long-term good than the protection of salmon stocks and preservation of pristine land. And polls have shown that the majority of Alaskans oppose the mine. An estimated 2.5 billion or more tons of toxic mineral waste would be dredged up at the site; even a tiny proportion of this waste, if leaked into surrounding waters, would chemically alter salmon habitat and threaten the health of the fishery.*

The oft-cited statistic is that “80 percent of Bristol Bay residents” are against it—a number based on data collected between 2007 and 2009, when the Pebble Mine controversy was most fevered. Two independent filmmakers brought attention to the issue with their documentary Red Gold in 2007. The state's most famous politician played both sides of the issue. While campaigning for governor in 2006, Sarah Palin said, “I am a commercial fisherman; my daughter’s name is Bristol,” and “I could not support a project that risks one resource that we know is a given, and that is the world’s richest spawning grounds, over another resource.” But two years later, she said she opposed a state ballot measure to restrict the discharge of toxic waste from new mining operations, which might have stopped the Pebble project from developing further. Some Alaskans took this as a betrayal of her promise to protect Alaska’s fisheries. The measure was defeated.

In 2010, an unlikely alliance of commercial fishermen, native tribes, and concerned citizens decided that their next best hope for stopping the Pebble Mine was to get the federal government to intervene. Even “Redneck Republicans,” as one Alaskan called himself, were concerned that the mine’s promise wasn't enough to risk ruining the salmon fishery. The alliance petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a preliminary investigation of the potential ecological impact of a hypothetical large-scale mining operation in Bristol Bay. The idea was that the agency could step in and shut down the Pebble Mine project by determining, in advance, that it would have "unacceptable" adverse effects on the Bristol Bay watershed.

Section 404 of the Clean Water Act prohibits any construction in navigable waters (e.g., in and around the Bristol Bay watershed) without a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Act authorizes the EPA to block permission from being granted. When the EPA responded to the petition from Alaska, it seemed unlikely that the agency would eventually invoke this power. And as the EPA began conducting its scientific study in 2011, the nation's attention shifted to the highly visible debate over Keystone XL.

In the spring of 2013, the EPA released a draft of its watershed assessment, foreshadowing future actions from Administrator Gina McCarthy. The draft assessment indicated that the mine would have an overwhelmingly negative impact on the Bristol Bay watershed. Despite those findings, McCarthy maintained that she was "open-minded" about the Pebble Mine and traveled to Bristol Bay in August 2013 on a "fact-finding mission" to speak directly with stakeholders. She heard from tribal leaders (“No amount of money or jobs can replace our way of life”), the Pebble Partnership’s wage workers (If Pebble weren’t here I’d probably be on welfare, probably be on food stamps, probably be on energy assistance”), and fishermen ("All the mine is going to do is kill our fisheries"). This provided fresh fodder for observers on all sides; Pebble Mine supporters, especially, were anxious that McCarthy might be persuaded to put up hurdles to the approval process.

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Svati Kirsten Narula is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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