Britsol Bay, Alaska, and its surrounding streams and rivers are home to the largest wild salmon source in the world. But, it is also home to the proposed site of the Pebble Mine — the second largest gold and copper deposit ever found. The Pebble deposit contains 80 million pounds of copper and 100 million ounces of gold. The value placed on this deposit was estimated at 200 billion dollars in 2007. The Pebble Mine’s potential impact on the fishing industry and Bristol Bay ecosystem has divided the Alaskan natives and the government.
The Pebble Mine will consist of an open pit mine that will be two to three miles wide and one mile deep. It will be one of the largest mines in the world. A tailings dam will go next to the mine and will rise 700 feet high and hold billions of pounds of waste from the mine. It is the dam that most opponents of the Pebble Mine fear, as it is the most likely to leak or break and cause contamination. Even further, the Pebble Mine sits on Lake Clark Fault and has the potential for devastating earthquakes, which could cause a disastrous spill.
The natives are divided on whether the Pebble Mine is a good idea. Some natives support the Pebble Mine’s potential for economic development and job creation. But others argue that the Pebble Mine will destroy the fishermen’s way of life by polluting the streams, rivers and bay. While proponents argue that the mine is needed to meet the high global demand for copper, opponents argue that copper is plentiful elsewhere in areas that are less sensitive to the disruptive nature of a mine.
The Environmental Protection Agency stepped in and conducted its own investigation of the Pebble Mine’s effect on Bristol Bay and its surrounding areas. The EPA’s investigation concluded that even if there were no leaks or accidents, the mine would remove 70 miles of stream and five square miles of wetlands, causing the loss of habitats where salmon lay their eggs. However, it is likely that one or more leaks will occur, directly impacting the salmon habitat. The EPA is now determining whether it should stop the Pebble Mine from being built pursuant to its power under the Clean Water Act.
Challengers to the EPA’s unilateral authority to shut down the Pebble Mine argue that the EPA is usurping Alaska’s right to determine what happens to its own resources and scaring off large investors from coming to Alaska. It remains to be seen whether the EPA will use its authority under the Clean Water Act and strike down the Pebble Mine project. Dr. David Chambers, an engineer and geophysicist who has been studying the Pebble Mine, stated:
I can’t tell you that this mine is going to be a disaster. They can’t tell you that this mine won’t be a disaster. But, I can tell you from a probability standpoint, it’s not a good bet that there won’t be problems.
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