Court's mine ruling may threaten Iliamna

COMPASS: Other points of view

July 2, 2009 

I was dismayed and frankly, disgusted at the recent Supreme Court decision that would allow the Kensington gold mine to dump industrial waste into a freshwater lake. Those of us who depend upon the salmon fishery are frustrated that the Clean Water Act could be subverted in such a way.

My family and I have commercially fished the waters of the Bristol Bay watershed for four generations. I formed and now manage Naknek Family Fisheries, a family-owned and operated fishing business located in Naknek, on the shores of Bristol Bay. Our livelihoods are now threatened more than ever by this dangerous legal ruling.

One of Northern Dynasty's options proposed for waste disposal has been to pump it into Lake Iliamna. Even if they decide against this option, the tailings pond could wipe out Frying Pan lake, a spawning ground for juvenile salmon.

Regardless of whether it's Lake Iliamna or Frying Pan Lake or another nearby lake, the high court's decision opens the door for the proposed developers of the giant Pebble deposit to place an estimated 2 billion tons of mine waste into water bodies that produce fish.

Pebble Mine Development Concept 12 envisions deep-water storage of mine waste in Lake Iliamna, Alaska's largest lake and some the world's most important wild sockeye salmon habitat. The Pebble developers have yet to settle on a mine plan, so the public has no way of knowing if they still want to sacrifice Lake Iliamna or if they have their eye on one of the other countless lakes in this watershed.

Dumping waste into a lake saves Kensington's owners money, and dumping tailings into Lake Iliamna would also save Northern Dynasty and foreign-owned partner, Anglo American, a lot of money. Pumping the waste into the lake would mean that the developers would not have to spend millions, if not billions, of dollars to build the super-sized dams and tailings impoundments that a project of this magnitude would otherwise require.

I have no doubt that by raising these concerns the Pebble developers and their supporters will say I'm exaggerating the risks and that I should "wait and see" what their final mine design looks like before I condemn the project. But by the time they release their mine plan, the train will have left the station. I don't feel that Alaska Department of Natural Resources has the power or the will to stop this project.

Now with the nation's highest court ruling that it's okay to put mine waste into a natural lake -- something the Clean Water Act was written to outlaw -- my alarm bells are sounding. It's time for Alaskans to tell Gov. Palin to protect Bristol Bay's headwaters with stronger safeguards and to declare Lake Iliamna and other nearby lakes streams and rivers off limits to mine waste.


Izetta Chambers is the owner and manager of Naknek Family Fisheries and holds a law degree from the University of Arizona, College of Law.

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