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  • Writer's pictureEmerald Air Service

Pebble Mine Threatens Katmai National Park

Updated: Jan 14, 2022

Our mission here at Emerald Air Service is to share the treasures of Katmai National Park and Preserve and its magisterial residents, the Alaskan coastal brown bear. We love Alaska’s wilds, and we hope to preserve them for generations to come. Adventuring into Katmai with visitors around the world to see these amazing creatures is what gets us up in the morning. We believe that, even with a perfect safety record, the sheer scale of the Pebble deposit would require a mine that would cause significant, irreversible damage to the salmon habitat, which serves as a foundation for freshwater ecosystems and all its local species—including Katmai’s brown bear inhabitants.

What is the Pebble Mine?

The Pebble Mine is the name of an open pit mine that seeks to take advantage of a massive, 11 billion-ton mineral deposit of gold, copper, and molybdenum in the Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska. The Pebble deposit is just north of Katmai National Park and Preserve, sitting in the headwaters of two rivers, Kvichak and Nushagak, that feed Bristol Bay. If built, the Pebble Mine would be one of the largest mines in the world.

Location of the Pebble deposit, circled in red.
Location of the Pebble deposit, circled in red.

What’s Happened So Far

In 2010, native tribes, commercial fisherman, and other businesses involved in Bristol Bay requested the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to initiate the 404(c) “veto” process in order to protect Bristol Bay. Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA is allowed a 404(c) action if they determine a proposed permit activity (i.e., the Pebble Mine) is “likely to result in the significant loss of or damage to fisheries, shellfishing, wildlife habitat, or recreation areas.” In 2012, the EPA released the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, consisting of an initial 339-page report that concluded that even without a major accident or catastrophe, the Pebble mine will destroy or tamper with up to 87 miles of salmon streams and 4,200 acres of wetlands part of salmon habitat. In 2014, the EPA issued its Proposed Determination to limit mining in association with the Pebble Deposit Area because toxic disposal of waste would cause irreversible damage to the salmon ecosystem. In July 2019, the EPA decided that its 2014 Proposed Determination was “preemptive” and now “outdated,” thus withdrawing its decision to protect the Bristol Bay region from mining efforts at the Pebble deposit. 2020, therefore, is a monumental year for the Pebble deposit, the year in which the EPA will likely either issue a mining permit for the Pebble Mine or again veto the request.

“without a major accident or catastrophe, the Pebble mine will destroy or tamper with up to 87 miles of salmon streams and 4,200 miles of wetlands part of salmon habitat.”

A New Grand Canyon? Not Even Close.

The Pebble Mine will be huge. The Pebble Mine’s website features a series of “reality check” blurbs in which they attempt to dispel alleged misinformation. Regarding the size of Pebble Mine, they take a quote saying that “Pebble will be almost as big as the Grand Canyon,” and then proceed to show that, actually, the deepest point of Pebble mine will be 1,400–1,700 feet deep, which isn’t even close to the Grand Canyon’s depth of one mile. Sure, to be technically precise, it will not be the size of the Grand Canyon. The point of hyperbole, however, is to bring attention to the significance of this project by overstatement. The largest open pit mine in North America is the Bingham Canyon copper mine. The picture immediately below shows Bingham copper mine during 2003, likely around the depth of Pebble’s supposed deepest point of roughly 1,500 feet. We can expect the Pebble mine to be at least this large, likely even larger.

Bingham Canyon copper mine, UT, USA.
Bingham Canyon copper mine, UT, USA (2003).

A New Grand Canyon? Basically, yes.

The above picture shows Bingham mine in 2003. An aerial shot from just two years ago shows a better view of the size of this open pit mine, pictured below. Now, Bingham is 3,000 feet deep at its deepest point (1,000 feet deeper than Pebble’s initial projections), but still covers only half the square mileage that Pebble will cover. Or, to say it another way, Pebble mine will be closer to twice the size of Bingham Canyon Copper Mine. Pebble Limited Partnership couches Pebble’s size in deceptive illustrations so as to conceal its actual size. Yes, friends, this will be something like a Grand Canyon.

Why Pebble Mine Threatens Katmai National Park

The primary issue with the Pebble Mine is that it runs a very high risk of polluting one of the world's highest-yielding salmon spawning grounds, and by consequence, Bristol Bay, which produces nearly half of the world’s wild salmon yield to date. For Alaska, commercial fishing brings in a lot of money, and Bristol Bay is Alaska’s most valuable fishery.

While the gold and copper will eventually be hauled off for further processing, the tailings, or the ore waste from mines, will need to be stored on site and isolated from the environment perpetually due to their toxic nature. In order to store the toxic waste from mining, ponds are designed in conjunction with dams in order to hold the tailings in perpetuity.

The Primary Threat to Salmon—Toxic Tailings

1. Mining Harvests Ore and Creates Tailings

1. Mining does 3 things with the earth: (1) it blasts away the earth and rock surrounding precious metals, which then exposes both (2) the valuable mineral, like copper or gold, and (3) the other, worthless ore that is attached to it, which is removed as tailings.

2.1 Toxic Tailings Must be Stored in Perpetuity

Tailings must be properly stored for up to 10,000 years in order for them to be environmentally safe. That means that the ponds, which are fastened by dams, must hold through anything and everything, including Alaska’s ring-of-fire earthquakes (it’s worth noting here that the Pebble mine will be very close to the Denali Fault, where the North American and Pacific tectonic plates collide, which can generate dam-shattering seismic activity). The International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD) says that earthquakes are among the top three reasons why tailings dams fail (ICOLD, 2001, 21). In addition to the damns securely holding the tailings, the tailings ponds must also not seep out of their enclosures, which presents an ever-present threat to nearby water sources, in this case some of the most productive salmon waters in the world.

2.2 Yes, Tailings Are “Toxic”

Pebble claims that “Tailings aren’t toxic,” but they are. The adjective “toxic” describes something that is harmful and poisonous, and a poison is something that causes or contributes to harm or even death. Tailings are poisonous to salmon, not only harming them and disrupting their reproduction, but possibly killing them. If tailings weren’t toxic, the water with which they are stored would not need to be treated, nor would pyritic tailings have to be stored in perpetuity. As will be shown later, the oxidation of metal sulfides (a product of copper mining) lowers the pH in water, which makes the water acidic, first damaging salmon eggs (acidity of 5.0 or stronger), then burning the fish (acidity of 4.5–4.0), and finally creating a completely hostile environment for salmon, killing any fish who remain (acidity stronger than 4.0).

2.3 Tailings Dam Failures are Not Uncommon

Containment pond damns fail more than once a year. The company engineering the tailings storage for the Pebble Mine (which Pebble chooses to call “proven, world-class engineering”) also designed tailings storage for the Mount Polley Mine, which failed in 2014, releasing 3.6 billion gallons (14.5 billion cubic meters) of a slurry of toxic water and mud into nearby water, making it what some consider the worst natural disaster in modern Canadian history. Besides the particular failures of this company, tailings dam failures are increasing at an alarming rate worldwide.

2.4 Tailings Dam Failures Demonstrate an Upward Trend

Dr. David Chambers, an expert on tailings dam safety, estimates that tailings dams ought to be designed for a 10,000-year lifespan. The rate of failure for tailings dams is on an upward trend, with one failure every eight months within the last 10 years. Without any improvements to regulations or industry practices, trends predict “19 Very Serious Failures between 2018 and 2027.” Just a year ago, on January 25th, 2019, the tailings dam failure in Brazil resulted in 300 dead or missing. Whether or not you hear about it, tailings dams are failing and are doing so at an increasing rate.

2.5 Only Some of the Toxic Tailings are Treatable

Two tailings ponds will be created for the Pebble Mine, one storing bulk tailings while the other stores pyritic tailings. Bulk tailings are toxic and must be treated, but are treatable. Pyritic tailings, however, are untreatably poisonous to salmon, and must be stored virtually forever. Ironically, Pebble has since decreased the initial size of their proposed containment ponds, while increasing the size of their mine pit (which you can see here). The final report for the 2014 Mount Polley Mine containment pond disaster concluded that the containment pond was operated beyond capacity (see esp. pages 11–13 of the report), a situation which Pebble could encounter if their ponds are made smaller while the pit is made larger. The containments ponds are intended to hold anywhere from 2.5 billion to 10 billion tons of mine waste over the course of Pebble's lifetime, enough to “bury the city of Seattle, WA.”

3 Tailings Dam Failure Results in Acid Mine Drainage

If the tailings ponds malfunction or the damns fail in any way whatsoever, for periods up to 10,000 years, the result is acid mine drainage (AMD). This acid mine drainage is usually toxic, reduces the pH of water it encounters, and has a detrimental impact on streams’ aquatic environments. Acid mine drainage occurs by the oxidation of sulfide minerals, minerals which occur as a toxic byproduct of open pit mining that are oxidized by exposure to fresh water or air. Mining metals typically generates mineral (metal) sulfides, or pyrite, which are contained in what is called “pyritic tailings.” Copper mines, which Pebble intends to be, are particular sources of pyrite (and consequently, acid mine drainage) because the most commonly mined copper ore, chalcopyrite, is a copper iron sulfide (i.e., pyrite).

4. Acid Mine Drainage Causes Irreversible Damage to Water

Once AMD has raised the acidity of the water past a pH of 3, iron (III) hydroxide precipitates and forms what is colloquially called “yellow boy,” a water-destroying phenomenon that chokes out all plant and animal life within a river. Although yellow boy is one of the worst situations caused by acid mine drainage, even lesser forms of acid pollution in rivers still maintain disastrous consequences on said water sources.

Acid mine drainage, especially from a copper mine, is highly likely to cause the pH of the water to rise to an acidity of 5.0 or stronger, which damages salmon eggs and harms reproduction.

Yellow boy drainage from a copper mine.

5. Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) Poisons Rivers and Kills Fish

Aquatic habitats require a particular pH in order for fish to thrive and reproduce normally, ideally somewhere between 6.5 to 9. An acidic pH of 6.5 or stronger will cause slow growth in the fish. When the pH reaches an acidity of 5.0 or stronger, reproduction is adversely affected, damaging fish eggs. And when the pH reaches an acidity of 4.0 or stronger, the fish themselves begin to die out. This doesn’t even mention the effects that acidic waters have on other animal and plan life within poisoned rivers.

If the fish do not die as a result of the acid present in the water, they will absorb it, which will be consequently ingested by whomever consumes the fish, whether bears or humans. Bristol Bay produces nearly half of all of the wild-salmon catch each year.

6. Pebble’s AMD Would Poison Rivers Headed to Bristol Bay

The Pebble Mine would sit at the headwaters of two of eight rivers that feed into Bristol Bay, the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers. The Kvichak River, which runs from Lake Iliamna (Alaska’s largest body of freshwater) to Bristol Bay, is “home to the single largest salmon run on the planet.” The Nushagak River is home to the largest king salmon run in Alaska. The rivers that feed Bristol Bay are among the world’s most prolific for salmon runs precisely because they have remained untouched (the Naknek, Kvichak, Egegig, Ugashik, Wood, Nushagak, Igushik, and Togiak Rivers feed Bristol Bay).

7. Bristol Bay is Alaska’s Most Productive Fishery

Bristol Bay hosts one of the world’s last great wild salmon fisheries. This single fishery accounts “for nearly half of the world’s commercial sockeye harvest.” With increasing yields in recent years, Bristol Bay’s prolific salmon fishery has produced a cumulative harvest of “2.1 billion salmon worth an estimated $34 billion since 1884,” making it the “most valuable commercial fishery for wild salmon in the world.” The fishery as a whole directly employs more than 14,000 people from 46 U.S. states, generating hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Bristol Bay is the sockeye salmon capitol of the world, home to three of the top 10 U.S. commercial fishing ports, and from the years 2013–17 accounted for 67% of Alaska’s sockeye salmon production (see here for a full report economic benefits of the Bristol Bay salmon industry). The year 2018 saw a record-breaking 62 million fish harvest. Bristol Bay is Alaska’s most abundant salmon fishery, one of the last few well-maintained and protected wild salmon fisheries in the world.

8. Pebble Mine May Disrupt More Jobs than it Produces

As mentioned above, Bristol Bay directly supports more than 14,000 jobs. The Pebble Mine anticipates 2,000 construction jobs with non-Alaskans filling as many “as 50 percent of hires” (Environmental Impact Statement, Executive Summary, 28; which you can download here). After construction, operation of the mine anticipates 250 employees coming from the surrounding communities while approximately 600 being flown in from Anchorage or Kenai, for a total of 850 jobs during the operation of the mine (EIS, Executive Summary, 28).

The construction of the mine will only take a few years, and the mine itself is not anticipated to last more than 25 years. The possibility of Bristol Bay being adversely affected, and so the jobs of many, is a much higher stake than the potential jobs produced by the Pebble Mine project. Just how many of those 14,000 jobs will be disrupted?

9. By Disrupting the Salmon, Pebble Would Disrupt Both Jobs and Wildlife (e.g., Brown Bears) Dependent on Salmon

As a summary of several of the points above, point nine here highlights that disrupting the salmon disrupts not only the jobs dependent on them, but also the wildlife intricately interwoven with and supported by Bristol Bay’s abundant salmon, which includes Katmai National Park and Preserve’s world class coastal brown bear population. Salmon are fundamental for supporting the ecosystem in which they exist, and serve as a biological foundation for life around them. River ecosystems that support wild salmon runs include “at least 137 different species [that] depend on the marine-rich nutrients that wild salmon provide.” Disrupting the salmon disrupts far more than just salmon, for both man and beast.

10. Bristol Bay’s Worldclass Salmon Support Katmai’s Worldclass Bears

We’re enthusiasts of all sorts of wildlife that Katmai supports, but are particularly fond of its incredible brown bear population. What differentiates brown bears from a grizzly bear is primarily their food source, which is wild salmon from abundant river runs. A salmon “run” refers to when salmon return to their spawning grounds in freshwater rivers. Salmon spawn in rivers, swim to the ocean to live for several years, and then return to the rivers from which they spawned near the end of their lives to lay eggs. A salmon “run” specifically refers to the salmon swimming back up the rivers they once traveled down earlier in their lives to, for example, Lake Iliamna. Bears don’t travel to the ocean to fish for salmon. They go to the nearby rivers when the salmon run each year in order to prepare for denning later in the fall. The salmon runs are so incredibly abundant that they allow large numbers of brown bears to congregate much closer than inland food supplies allow. When food is abundant, aggression over said food is low. Bears don’t have to compete with one another for food because there is no lack. And this low level of competition over food sources is one of the things that allows us at Emerald Air Service to safely view Katmai’s brown bear residents and share them with visitors from around the world. Disrupting the salmon runs through acid mine drainage will not only affect the health of the overall bear population, but will also adversely affect the degree to which we can safely participate in the lands and lives of theses amazing creatures.

Adverse Affects of the Pebble Mine: Summarized.

To summarize the Pebble discussion, we highlight four factors that uniquely affect the wildlife and habitats at and near the Pebble Deposit: the mine’s (1) location, (2) size, (3) type, and (4) accompanying infrastructure.

1. Location of the Mine

The location of the mine is critical because it sits at the headwaters of two particular rivers that are significant to a healthy and thriving salmon habitat, perhaps one of the most significant remaining wild salmon habitats in the world.

2. Size of the Mine

The sheer size of the Pebble Mine ensures that during phase one at least 87 miles of salmon streams and 4,200 acres of wetlands part of salmon habitat. This mine will compete for the largest mine in the world.

3. Type of the Mine

Pebble contains copper, which entails toxic waste and tailings generated as a byproduct of mining. Copper is a significant culprit of acid mine drainage. If any of this acid mine drainage spills or releases from the tailings storage ponds, it will cause certain and irreversible damage to the surrounding salmon habitat and water sources.

4. Accompanying Mine Infrastructure

While this article has primarily focused on the mine pit and its tailings ponds, the mine itself will require roads, housing, and utility structures built to handle a mining project of these proportions. It will be something like a small town built north of Katmai National Park and Preserve. Miles and miles of power lines and roads will open up previously untouched country.

In a Nutshell: The Mine Will Affect Katmai’s Bears

Part of the reason why Katmai National Park and Preserve will be adversely affected, even irrevocably damaged, is that the coastal brown bears that make Katmai one of the premiere brown bear viewing locations in the world subsist on the plethora of salmon available to them through nearby rivers. Critical to being able to view these bears closely is due to the superabundance salmon. Bears can congregate very closely, and we can observe them very safely, precisely because there is little to no competition over food sources. Damage to salmon spawning grounds in the rivers and lakes will consequently damage the plentiful food chain that makes Katmai the brown bear eden that it is. At the very least, even if the Pebble Mine retains a perfect safety record, the infrastructure required to support the mine will damage the surrounding habitats of all nearby wildlife, disrupting an otherwise intact ecosystem.

How Can You Help?

You can help in at least two ways: (1) by sharing this article and (2) by taking action here. The more people who are aware of the Pebble Mine and the effects it will have, the better. Secondly, signing a petition to let the president know public opinion goes a long way. We truly hope that the Alaska’s beautiful wilderness can be maintained and preserved for years to come, and that Katmai can be a wealth of the finest bear viewing in the world for generations to come.

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