Lake Iliamna, Alaska — Rick Halford is a Manifest Destiny kind of Alaskan. He cleared his land with dynamite. He calls himself the “ideal redneck Republican.” As a longtime leader in the state legislature, he never met a hard rock mine he didn’t like.
That is, until he took a long look at the proposed Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska. It’s a phenomenal prospect, the biggest and richest in North America. But to dig a mine there is to make a Faustian bargain that involves an agonizing Alaskan twist.
In return for copper and gold worth an estimated half a trillion dollars, state and federal regulators risk poisoning what scientists describe as the last best place on earth for millions of wild salmon – and the risk from toxic mine waste would last forever.
“If God were testing us, he couldn’t have found a more challenging place,” said Halford, who helped write Alaska’s industry-friendly mining laws when he was president of the state senate and in the past two years has worked as a part-time paid consultant to environmental and Native groups that oppose the mine.*
Global mining giant Anglo-American and its Canadian partner, Northern Dynasty, want to dig one of the world’s largest open-pit mines — up to three miles wide and thousands of feet deep. They want to do it in the near-pristine watershed of Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.....
Scientists who have studied the long-term biological consequences of hard rock mining are dumbstruck by the prospect of an open-pit mine in an ecosystem where each summer 30 to 40 million salmon return from the Pacific – and where commercial and sport fishermen catch half of them without reducing the historic abundance of fish.
“It is essentially a goose laying golden eggs,” said Tom Quinn, a University of Washington fish biologist who has studied and camped in the watershed for 25 years.
Elsewhere in North America and across the world, when major mining development has occurred in proximity to a salmon or trout watershed, there has been a consistent pattern of pollution that erodes the health of fish or kills them outright.... After mines foul streams and rivers.... Fish biologists say that the damage usually turns out to be irreversible given the persistent toxicity of the pollutants, the chronic lack of government money for remediation and the history of mining companies in ducking cleanup obligations.....
North of Bristol Bay, tens of millions of juvenile sockeye come of age each year in a vast salmon incubator called Lake Iliamna. Nearly 80 miles long and up to 22 miles wide, it is the largest undeveloped lake in the United States. It also happens to be about 15 miles downstream via Upper Talarik Creek from the proposed Pebble Mine – a geographic happenstance that mortifies fish biologists.
“If you were to pick the worst place in the world from the point of view of salmon to have an activity like [an open-pit copper mine], this would be right exactly where they’ve got it,” said Quinn, the fisheries biologist from the University of Washington. “If Iliamna isn’t the strongest of the [salmon] strongholds, nothing is.”
In its assessment of open-pit mining at the site, the EPA said there is a risk that during the expected life of the mine, some contaminates – including dissolved copper — could wash into Lake Iliamna from pipeline breaks or the failure of water treatment systems. These accidents have occurred at other similar mines in the past, the EPA said.
Scientists have known for a century that copper is toxic to salmon. But recent research has found strong evidence that even very low levels of copper can have disastrous effects.....
There are other less risky sites in the American West, South Africa and South America for large copper mines. Cohen said that these sites, while they may not be as large or as profitable as Pebble, could produce enough copper to meet global need without endangering a world-class fishery....
Rick Halford wrote some of these regulations back in the 1980s, when he was a Republican leader in the state Senate. They require mining companies to pay salaries and overhead costs at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources when state employees process mine permits. Under these rules, no major mine has been turned down by the state.
The regulations have saved money and encouraged small- and medium-sized mine operations, Halford says. But he now believes the rules undermine the state’s ability to evaluate a multi-billion-dollar project like Pebble.
“States are too close to the short-term jobs,” Halford said. “It’s difficult for the state to say no.”
Like many conservative Alaskans, Halford hates it when the federal government, particularly the EPA, intrudes in state business. Still, as much as he would like to see more mining, more high-paying jobs and more economic activity in Alaska, the scope of Pebble – and its forever risk – have convinced him that any decision about the mine’s future should be made at the national level.
“The real hope of stopping this development is the national conscience,” he said.
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