Although 65% of Alaskans oppose the proposed plans for a copper, gold, and molybdenum mine near Lake Iliamna, Pebble Partnership Ltd. has filed a permit application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to get the controversial site underway.
The Pebble Mine project stalled when the U.S. Environmental Protective Agency attempted to supersede state laws to block such developments, but now that new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has abandoned this action, Pebble decided to strike while the iron was hot. With substantial support from First Quantum Minerals — an agreement in which they’ll pay up to $150 million over four years with the right to acquire 50% of Pebble for $1.35 billion — Pebble has filed an application for a wetlands permit for its 5.9 square mile mine.
Although molybdenum has been used for countless purposes over the past 200 years, the majority of those living in Bristol Bay, Alaska — more than 80% of residents, in fact — vehemently oppose the construction of the mine. The opposition extends across party lines and industries; community leaders have said they “will never support a Pebble mine in Bristol Bay,” and former EPA officials from previous presidential administrations (including Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes) have expressed their disapproval of the plan.
The reasons behind the opposition are both environmental and economic. If the Pebble mine is fully developed, this process will generate up to 10 billion tons of mining waste, which will need to be permanently stored in an active earthquake zone. Although Pebble would not use cyanide for gold recovery, this waste storage alone would threaten the world’s largest wild salmon fishery, which is located in Bristol Bay.
Not only is wild salmon a healthier option for consumption, containing three times less saturated fat than farmed salmon, but it’s also the basis of the local economy. The annual commercial fishing economy is valued at $1.5 million, encompassing 14,000 jobs. The EPA has said that even with no system or human failures at play, a mine of any size would reduce regional water flow and would directly eliminate 1,300 to 5,350 acres of wetlands and 24 to 94 miles of salmon-supporting streams. While the mine itself could create 1,500 to 2,000 new jobs and bring in up to $66 million in revenue per year, most residents stand in defiance of the plan for cultural, ecological, and financial reasons.
First Quantum CEO Philip Pascall knows it’ll take a lot of work to convince locals that the mine will be a positive for the region and the state, but he’s steadfast in his belief that the mine and the fisheries can co-exist.
Alaska Governor Bill Walker, however, does not agree. In an official statement, Walker said: “Based on the information available to me now, I do not support the Pebble Mine.”
Although the EPA could approve the plan, the “Bristol Bay Forever” initiative, which was passed by Alaska voters in 2014, could still save the day. The initiative would require an affirmative finding from the Alaska legislature to prove that the mine projects would not pose harm to the wild salmon in the fisheries reserve.