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Politics and the Environment in Bristol Bay, Alaska

Virtually untouched, Alaska’s Bristol Bay is one of America’s last great wild places. Now, a proposed multibillion-dollar mine promises to provide an economic lifeline for locals, but environmentalists warn that it could destroy one of the world’s richest salmon fisheries. Alex Prud’homme reports.


Michael Melford The fishing industry provides 75 percent of the jobs in the remote and largely unmapped Bristol Bay region. Serious anglers fly into the bay's luxury lodges to hook five varieties of salmon as well as trophy-size trout.

Michael Melford

The fishing industry provides 75 percent of the jobs in the remote and largely unmapped Bristol Bay region. Serious anglers fly into the bay’s luxury lodges to hook five varieties of salmon as well as trophy-size trout.

Like much of the Alaskan bush, the landscape surrounding the austere, pewter-colored expanse of Bristol Bay is unlike anything you’ll see in the Lower 48 (a place locals refer to as “America”). This tableau of clear rivers, craggy peaks, bright glaciers, and endless tundra supports an exceptional abundance of wildlife, including 15 species of whale (two of them endangered); four migratory flyways that bring birds from Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas; and the last pristine sockeye salmon fishery in the world.
Bristol Bay is too remote to attract tourists on a large scale, although luxury lodges here cater to a small group of serious anglers who fly in to hook some of the world’s largest salmon and trout. The land around the bay, however, has caught the attention of an international mining consortium called the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), which has been exploring a 180-square-mile claim here since 2007. PLP is an alliance between Anglo American, a global mining giant based in London, and Northern Dynasty, headquartered in Vancouver and partly owned by another London-­based giant, Rio Tinto. (The Japanese firm Mitsubishi bowed out of the alliance last year.) The focus of PLP’s interest is the Pebble deposit—the nation’s single richest lode of copper, gold, and molybdenum (used in steel production), estimated to be worth $200 billion to $500 billion, and perhaps more.
The Pebble deposit sits at the headwaters of two of the region’s most important salmon spawning streams, the Kvichak (KWEE-jack) and Nushagak rivers. If Pebble is excavated, it will become the largest mine in North America and one of the largest in the world, with a toxic lagoon that could contain ten billion tons of hazardous waste. Those opposed to the mine fear that an accidental toxic spill of the poisons used in the mining process—such as cyanide and selenium (which allegedly caused two-headed trout near an Idaho mine)—could wipe out Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery, a carefully managed resource that employs more than 11,000 people and generates more than $200 million in revenue a year.
“When I first heard about the mine in 2004, I thought: ‘Great, it’ll bring jobs to the region,’ ” recalls Brian Kraft, co-owner of the Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge, which sits on the Kvichak, just a few miles from the proposed mine site. “But the more questions I asked about Pebble, the more uncomfortable I got.” When he asked PLP to name an open-pit mine that hadn’t polluted the water, he says, “they couldn’t.”
Eager to show me what is at stake, Kraft ushered me aboard his Cessna 206 floatplane. With a roar, we lifted off the Kvichak and were quickly soaring over Lake Iliamna. At 1,150 square miles, it is Alaska’s largest lake and home to the only freshwater seals in the United States, billions of salmon fingerlings, the occasional endangered beluga whale, and countless other creatures, as well as native villages that have thrived on a subsistence diet for thousands of years.
“This is ground zero,” Kraft said, as we flew 15 miles north of the aquamarine lake. “Pebble.”

Bristol Bay’s salmon industry generates more than $200 million in revenue annually. But the value of the fish extends well beyond the economy. Click on the image above to learn more about the area’s delicate eco-system.

Parts of the region are so remote, wet, and difficult to navigate that no one has bothered to map them. But this site has been meticulously measured and probed by mining companies for more than 20 years. Helicopters chattered nearby, and the brown and green tundra below buzzed with industry: Small red shacks stood next to metal towers, and white hoses spewed drilling mud onto the land or into collection ponds. Since 2002, PLP has spent $400 million conducting soil and seismic tests around Pebble, monitoring groundwater, and drilling more than 800 exploratory boreholes up to a mile deep.
“This is a watershed,” Kraft explained. “All the water on this side of the hill flows down the Koktuli and Mulchatna rivers to the Nushagak. All the water on that side flows down Upper Talarik to Lake Iliamna and then into the Kvichak. Either way, it all flows from here down to Bristol Bay.” In other words, if ever there is a toxic spill in this labyrinthine water system at the headwaters of two of the region’s most important spawning streams, the results could be cataclysmic for the salmon and those who depend on them.
Pebble also represents a metaphorical watershed: The question of whether to allow a mine here is a momentous one for Alaska, and has implications for people around the world. The mine’s backers say that Pebble will be operated with the utmost environmental sensitivity and will be good for Alaska: It will bring jobs to an impoverished corner of the state, will generate significant tax revenues, and will provide valuable resources at a time when metal reserves are running low and prices are high. This is a potent message, and many support the mine, among them former Governor Sarah Palin, Alaskan politicians who call the deposit a “strategic national resource,” industry groups, the Native American actor Wes Studi (who has toured Alaskan villages promoting Pebble), and even my Anchorage taxi driver, who said the mine represents “a golden opportunity.”
But critics say the golden promises are too good to be true: The Pebble deposit is in a seismically active zone, the mine won’t provide that many jobs, and the best jobs won’t go to native Alaskans. Unlike the salmon that return every year, the riches will be gone forever once they’ve been scooped out of the earth, leaving behind nothing but industrial waste.
The debate over Pebble has created deep schisms, split families and native tribes, and been framed as a war for the soul of Alaska. At its heart, the battle over Pebble is a resource war. Alaska has some of the world’s most valuable fishing grounds: The state’s $2 billion commercial fishery accounts for 62 percent of all U.S. seafood, and it sends tons of halibut, black cod, and king crab to the global market annually; its 2011 salmon catch was valued at $603 million, making it the third-richest in state history (1988’s catch of $725 million holds the record). Bristol Bay is Alaska’s richest commercial fishery, and all five species of Pacific salmon (pink, chum, sockeye, coho, and king) spawn in the bay’s watershed. The bay enjoys a great genetic diversity in its salmon, which accounts for the species’ resilience and the region’s fecundity. PLP aims for a “no net loss” of salmon, but critics fear that if the mine destroys the existing stocks and replaces them with other salmon—as if all salmon were created equal—the system’s stability will be weakened or crushed.
Flanked by well-protected, ecologically sensitive preserves, the Pebble deposit sits on a chunk of state land with minimal environmental protections. To the east is Lake Clark National Park and Preserve; to the south is Katmai National Park and Preserve; to the west are Wood-Tikchik State Park and the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. If PLP is permitted to mine, critics say, other prospectors will rush to make claims nearby, and a modern gold rush will radically transform this primordial wilderness into an industrial landscape. The Federal Bureau of Land Management has already recommended opening a million acres around Bristol Bay to prospectors.
John Shively, PLP’s CEO, maintains that the mine will be state-of-the-art and that the company has gone “beyond the state’s environmental guidelines” to maintain a light footprint: Instead of etching new roads into the fragile tundra with bulldozers, PLP ferries in most of its equipment by helicopter; groundwater is monitored; the partnership has spent more than $132 million assessing the mine’s potential environmental and sociological impacts, and has issued a stream of reassuring scientific reports about air, soil, and water quality. But critics say those reports were written by consultants and are not peer-reviewed. After refusing to make its data available, PLP finally released 27,000 pages of information and analysis of its mining claim in February, an overwhelming data dump that mine opponents say was intended to confuse regulators.
Shively brushes away any criticism. “I believe we can mine Pebble safely and continue fishing for salmon in Bristol Bay,” he told me. “If we become convinced that we can’t do that, we won’t do the mine. We’ve said that from the start. But I’m concerned that people want to stop the project even before we have a mining plan in place.”
Originally from New York, Shively came to Alaska in 1965 with the anti-poverty program Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). He worked with native groups to create jobs, and in the 1980s negotiated the permitting of Red Dog, the world’s largest zinc mine, which employs many natives. He sees Red Dog as a model for Pebble: “To me, these projects are about improving people’s lives.” Red Dog has been fined for environmental pollution, but Shively says that “it is safe now, and there are fish in Red Dog Creek.”
Shively has put an emphasis on “social license”—industry jargon for obtaining permission from the native community to drill in their backyard. He says that Pebble would provide at least 2,000 construction jobs and more than 800 operating jobs, and that more than half of the operating positions will go to people who live around Bristol Bay. The mine will have a “halo” effect for support businesses—air taxis, hotels, tugboats, trucks, food purveyors, electricians, and the like—and will generate tax revenues and mining royalties for local and state agencies.
Mining Pebble will not be a delicate operation. To extract copper, gold, and “moly,” at least 10 billion tons of rock will be crushed in giant mills, only 0.4 percent of which will be useful ore. The remaining 99.6 percent—the “tailings,” or waste rock—will be deposited in enormous impoundments, covered with water, and contained behind massive dams, including one of the tallest in the United States (at 754 feet) and the world’s tallest earthen dam (at 740 feet), both of which are taller than Hoover Dam (at 726 feet). The mine could operate for up to 100 years. Once the mine is closed, PLP has promised to maintain the earthen dams and water treatment plant “in perpetuity”—an Ozymandian promise that strains credulity. PLP will have to post a bond covering some of those costs and be granted 67 state and local permits. If all goes according to plan, the permitting process should take about three years, and it will take PLP another three years to build the mine and its infrastructure. With this timeline, production would not begin until 2018.
While he remains upbeat about Pebble’s chance of regulatory approval, Shively cautions that the mine will be extremely expensive to build and operate: “For us to move ahead, it has to make economic sense.” He refuses to divulge what the magic numbers are for Pebble to be worthwhile, but insists, “It works. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.” Despite such reassuring words, public resistance to Pebble has grown, and a collection of unlikely allies has emerged.

Though the Pebble Limited Partnership has yet to make its final mining plan public, a report by the Wild Salmon Center and Trout Unlimited, based on preliminary plans, gives an indication of just how mass the Pebble mine could be.


Salmon—along with berries, moose, caribou, bear, ptarmigan, and still more salmon—has been the centerpiece of native Alaskans’ subsistence diet for 3,000 to 10,000 years. The Yupik tribe around Bristol Bay are, in essence, salmon people. PLP’s Shively says that he wants the mine to help natives, but many of those I interviewed told me that they feel caught in a crossfire they don’t understand. They know little about mining or its environmental impact. Some are in favor of Pebble because of the economic opportunity it affords, but others are deeply worried.
“Salmon are a renewable resource—forever,” said Robin Samuelsen, a Yupik native, who is also president and CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, which runs a range of businesses on behalf of the tribe. “Once the gold and copper are taken out of Pebble, they will be gone—forever.” Samuelsen swung open the doors of his three enormous freezers, each overflowing with salmon fillets, moose, pike, rhubarb, and berries. “No white man food in here!” he said with a wry laugh.
Another revered native, Bella Hammond, widow of Alaska’s famous “Bush Rat Governor,” Jay Hammond, said, “I couldn’t think of a worse place to put a mine—other than right here in my own kitchen.” But some native Alaskans, such as Lisa Reimers, note that Pebble represents the future. Bemoaning the cost of milk in Bristol Bay—$11 a gallon—Reimers embraces the mine as a savior. “There’s no living off the land anymore,” she said. “Fishing is not sustaining our community.”
A native of Iliamna, a town of 102 people on the shore of Lake Iliamna, Reimers is one of the few locals who have attended college. She is on the board of the Iliamna Development Corporation, which provides catering, shuttle service, and housecleaning for PLP. Many of her family and friends also work for the mining operation, some as roughnecks and others in management. “The people fighting this mine, putting fear into the locals, don’t live here. They can go live off the land by themselves and leave us alone. This is about the future of our community. If we don’t have an economy, we can’t live here.”
For the majority of the locals, however, Pebble is clearly unwelcome: In a 2007 poll by the Cracium research group, 71 percent of Bristol Bay households opposed the mine; in a June 2011 poll, that number had increased to 86.2 percent. In 2010, when Anglo American brought villagers from one of its mining towns in Africa to meet native Alaskans, many locals were unimpressed. One native Alaskan recounted, “I told an African lady, ‘Take all the Anglo money you can get, because you aren’t going to have any clean water.’ She said she was ready to move her entire village here, where the air and water are clean.”
Anglo American’s CEO, Cynthia Carroll, says the community’s opposition is premature. “It is far too early to make judgments about a potential mining project for which a mine plan has not been formally proposed. Until that time, public sentiment is based on mere speculation and, frankly, fearmongering.”
A number of boldfaced names, including Robert Redford and celebrity chefs Tom Colicchio and Rick Moonen, have spoken out publicly against the mine, and Tiffany & Co., along with 57 other jewelers, has signed the Bristol Bay Pledge, vowing never to use metals from Pebble. Michael Kowalski, Tiffany’s chairman and CEO, has visited the region numerous times and says that his position is morally responsible and good business: “Bristol Bay is a special place. Sourcing our precious metals in a socially and environmentally conscientious way is implicit in the Tiffany brand promise. It’s what our customers expect.”

But perhaps the most unexpected, and unpredictable, Pebble opponent is Bob Gillam, an arch-conservative money manager, said to be Alaska’s only billionaire (a label he denies, though he won’t elaborate), who dresses all in black, owns a fleet of airplanes, and believes it is “stupid not to drill” for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Gillam likes to say, “Only two things matter in life—getting rich and catching fish.” When I met him in his Anchorage office (he also maintains a trading desk in New York City), he barked, “I am not a green!” Yet he has been Pebble’s single most powerful opponent, pouring millions of his own dollars into the fight.
Gillam’s detractors say that his opposition stems from the enormous house he built on Keyes Point, on Lake Clark (Senator Ted Stevens was a frequent guest). They accuse him of spending some $3 million a year to assemble an army of attorneys, lobbyists, pollsters, scientists, and PR experts to build a case against the mine. Gillam vehemently denies that he’s fighting to protect his personal playground. “It’s about the right thing to do. If your neighbor’s house is on fire, you help him put it out. Bristol Bay is in many ways the greatest place in America. I’m defending the brilliant people and unique wildlife that live there. I’m not the villain here, I am Robin Hood.”
Gillam has been fishing around Bristol Bay since 1974 and first heard about the Pebble mine in 2004. Inspecting the site from one of his planes, he decided to fund a nonprofit organization called the Renewable Resources Coalition, which runs anti-Pebble print and TV ads. Yet Gillam’s investment management firm, McKinley Capital Management, reportedly holds more than $1 billion in mining stocks, including Anglo American stock. He refused to discuss McKinley and insists that his fight is a personal issue. In 2008, Gillam pushed Measure 4—a public referendum to disallow any new large metal mine from releasing chemicals that would damage salmonoid fish. The measure was narrowly defeated, perhaps due to an intense publicity campaign by PLP—and Governor Sarah Palin’s controversial endorsement of the mine just days before she was named Senator John McCain’s running mate.
Anchorage is a small town, and at times the animus between Gillam and PLP’s Shively is palpable. One of Gillam’s ads featured a photo of Shively as a werewolf, which the Pebble CEO growled was “over the top.” Gillam’s response? “I don’t care what Shively thinks. My media beat their media. But PLP feels free to perpetuate lies about me. They say that my Save Our Salmon initiative threatens subsistence fishing and hunting—a lie. I am going to make sure they don’t get a permit for this mine. This isn’t a nice little game anymore. This is war.
Gillam, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, and environmental groups have filed numerous lawsuits to stop or at least delay the mine. But the most significant threat to Pebble comes from federal regulators at the EPA. Dennis McLerran, the EPA’s regional administrator, has said that “this is going to be a huge decision for the agency” and that he is unaware of any other resource conflict with such high stakes.
In 2011, a group of influential investors led by Trillium Asset Management—whose members represent $170 billion in assets and own 13 million shares of Anglo American stock—grew alarmed by Pebble and urged the EPA to assess the impact of the mine on the Bristol Bay watershed. If the EPA deems Pebble a threat to water supplies, it could authorize a review under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, which could block the mine once and for all. A decision is due this spring, and it is the opposition’s best hope. But John Shively remains sanguine and says PLP might argue that the EPA does not have the authority to make such a ruling.
Much could depend on the upcoming presidential election: President Obama is under pressure to provide jobs and develop resources, while hewing to his promise to strengthen environmental protections. At the same time, the EPA is being demonized by right-wing candidates as a “job-killing agency.” Conventional wisdom holds that Obama is more likely to stop Pebble than a Republican. But nothing is certain: Obama has given the green light to oil exploration off the Alaskan coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, and has retreated on greenhouse gas limits. For Bristol Bay, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
For now, fishing on the Kvichak remains prodigious. When I was casting there last September, the salmon season was over but the rainbow trout, graylings, and arctic char were hungry. In front of Kraft’s Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge, my rod bent violently and I set the hook. My reel whined and an enormous rainbow suddenly cartwheeled out of the water, its flank spangling like quicksilver in the sunlight. I managed to look into its wild, dark eye for a thrilling instant. Then the trout spat out the hook, plunged back into the clear blue stream, and disappeared.
This article originally appeared in Conde Nast Traveller