Army Corps of Engineers’ Pebble finding is a punch in the gut for Bristol Bay fishermen

Correction: The original version of this column contained several errors, including the extent of permanent impact to streams, wetlands and waters in the project area. Of the approximate 4,600 acres of wetlands and waters and 190 miles of streams impacted, about 2,200 acres of wetlands and waters and 105 miles of streams would be impacted permanently, according to the environmental impact statement. The column misstated the amount of tailings that would accumulate; according to the EIS, 1.4 billion tons of tailings would be stored in two facilities with a combined footprint of 5.9 square miles, although those numbers would grow if the project gets a permit to expand in the future and shrink if the currently proposed mine closes. The column described mine waste as rock treated with mercury and cyanide; the Pebble Project’s current proposal does not include the use of either. The column said it would be one of the biggest mines in the world; Pebble disputes that. The column incorrectly said the Denali Fault produced the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, and it misspelled two geographical features, the Koktuli River and Talarik Creek.

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While Bristol Bay fished, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plowed ahead with its environmental review of the proposed Pebble mine project.

The review was published July 24, about the time most of the Bay fishermen were coming out of the water. The decision — that the Pebble project wouldn’t hurt a thing — plus the dirt-poor price of 70 cents a pound for this year’s sockeye hit fishermen with a double whammy.

The 70-cent base price is poor, but as all fishermen know, this price will pass. The likelihood is the base price will spiral upward a bit this winter.

However, the Corps of Engineers’ finding is not just a slap in the face — it’s a kick in the behind.

There is virtually no person alive who has flown over the site of the Pebble project and looked down on the wetlands and its network of waterways who could look you in the face and say honestly, “A mine here won’t hurt anything.”

Consider that 190 miles of streams and 4,600 acres of wetlands and waters would be impacted, including about 105 miles of streams and 2,200 acres of wetlands and waters that would be permanently impacted.


Think about a huge, low-grade ore deposit being developed between the Talarik Creek watershed and the Koktuli River headwaters. The Koktuli drains into the Nushagak River and Talarik drains into Lake Iliamna and the Kvichak River. The Nushagak and the Kvichak systems contributed about half of this year’s 56 million Bristol Bay sockeye run.

A vast open pit mine with its necessary settling ponds and tailings facilities sitting almost astride the Lake Clark fault does not seem like a “won’t hurt a thing” site. The Lake Clark fault, which is less than 20 miles away, is sub-parallel to the Denali Fault, which produced a 7.9 quake in 2002.

I sat through that quake and experienced the damage firsthand. According to the current proposal, which has been downsized from previous plans,  Pebble will produce up to 1.4 billion tons of tailings in its proposed lifetime. These would be stored in tailings facilities covering nearly six square miles. 

Mine waste is sometimes composed of rock that has been treated with cyanide to extract minerals, although the Pebble Project has stated publicly it will not use cyanide. Pogo Mine near Delta Junction has a permit that allows it to dry stack treated tailings in a nearby creek, and 10 percent contain leftover cyanide. This portion is mixed with cement and put back into the mine. 

Pogo is located in far different terrain than Pebble. There is little drainage potential and it’s not located on a salmon stream.

The Fort Knox gold mine near Fairbanks also uses cyanide for purification of the gold. Fort Knox had a 300,000-gallon spill of cyanide-containing water in 2010 and another 45,000-gallon spill in 2012. Neither spill had much of an environmental impact — the location of Fort Knox makes spill-response relatively easy, and there are no major waterways near the mine site.

Pebble has no terrain relationship to either Fort Knox or Pogo. These two mines are in the Interior — an area with little rain and long, frozen winters.

Pebble sits in an area where most of the precipitation is in the form of rain. It gets more than twice as much precipitation as the Interior. It could be one of the world’s biggest mines, although Pebble disputes that, saying the mine plan now under permitting is far smaller than it could be. While size alone does not necessarily determine impacts, one does need to be aware of the acid-producing potential and the easy movement of water in an area that receives 35 to 40 inches of rain annually.

Bristol Bay is the largest, best-managed salmon run in the world. It produces $1.5 billion in yearly revenue. The Bay’s sockeye have supported area villages for thousands of years. We are going to risk all of that for 20-odd years of mineral production? Are we nuts?

Merry Old England used to have a king salmon run in the Thames. The Columbia River used to have a sockeye run. They carried the last few of those fish up the river and they still didn’t make it.

The economic argument that Bristol Bay fishermen are not Alaska residents doesn’t hold water. Ninety percent of the people who depend on Bristol Bay fish live in Alaska. They fish them commercially or they live in villages that depend on salmon for food and their very identity. Northern Dynasty, which owns the Pebble Partnership, is Canadian. This year, Canada won’t let you across the border.

If everything goes perfectly, then yup, Pebble won’t hurt a thing. Show me a large-scale mine — or heck, any mine — that has operated for 20 years without a single environmental incident, and I will believe that a cow can jump over the moon.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.