Copper, Gold and Salmon: Toxic Concerns Surround Pebble Mine Project in Alaska's Bristol Bay

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There's a vast supply of valuable metal in Alaska just waiting to be mined, but doing so could spell environmental disaster for the area's salmon population. A major discovery of gold, copper and a metallic ore called molybdenum have been scoped out via exploratory drills near Bristol Bay, Alaska. If unearthed, they are estimated to be worth some $300 billion, and extracting them could provide hundreds of jobs for rural Alaskans. But the streams, rivers and tributaries that empty into the bay are also home to one of the world's last great runs of Pacific sockeye salmon.

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The Pebble Mine operation, as it's known, is located in the heart of the Bristol Bay watershed. In July 2007, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. and London-based mining group Anglo American established the Pebble Partnership to permit, engineer, construct and operate a long-term copper and gold mine there. Mike Heatwole, the vice president of public affairs for the Pebble Partnership, explained that the company is in the process of gathering data on the water and fish in the area.

"We've been studying the area for almost six years," he says. "Before we apply for permits, we need environmental assessments and a preliminary development plan that includes ... the plans to mitigate environmental impacts."

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Heatwole says the company will apply for permits in 2011--hundreds of them. He's confident the approvals will come. "The preliminary development plan will answer what style of mining is proposed," he says. "The west zone is more amenable to open-pit [mining], while the east zone is deeper under ground and requires block cave [mining]."

Regardless of the proposed plan, the mining project is destined to have an enormous impact on the landscape of Bristol Bay. The project would require damming most of the South Fork Koktuli valley and forming a tailing pond for toxic chemicals.

Carol Ann Woody owns and operates Fisheries Research and Consulting in Anchorage, Alaska. She says the plans are worrisome. "The earthen dam must not leak and must contain the waste indefinitely," Woody says, adding: "It is in an area that is known for seismic activity and active volcanoes."

Woody has spent a number of years researching the salmon population in Bristol Bay. …