In the long, ongoing battle over Alaska’s Pebble Mine, the people who would be most affected by it — the residents of Alaska’s Lake and Peninsula Borough — are voting on an initiative designed to prevent the mine from becoming a reality in the wild and pristine Bristol Bay region.
A company known as the Pebble Limited Partnership hopes to develop the mine roughly 200 miles southwest of Anchorage and just north of Iliamna. Pebble Mine would be the largest open-pit mine in North America, involving the excavation of billions of tons of raw ore containing copper, gold and molybdenum.
Nearly 1,200 registered voters in the borough are already mailing in ballots to officially stake out their positions on the controversial mine and the related Save Our Salmon initiative, which would prohibit the Lake and Peninsula Borough from issuing permits for mining projects that would threaten to destroy salmon habitat.
The Wilderness Society’s Tribal Advocate, Lydia Olympic, is one of a very few people who have been going door to door in an effort to educate people in the region about the effects of the proposed Pebble Mine on salmon habitat, as well as cultural traditions and subsistence activities for residents of the area.
Legal challenges from Pebble Limited Partnership and the state of Alaska are sure to follow if the initiative passes, but what’s at stake is the largest remaining wild sockeye salmon run in the world, which sustains the world’s richest commercial wild-salmon fishery; the habitat for tens of millions of salmon that spawn in the streams of the Bristol Bay watershed; and the subsistence ways of life of Alaska Natives who depend on fishing to feed their families. Sixty-five percent of the borough’s residents Alaska Natives, and most continue to practice traditional subsistence fishing activities that have sustained their people and culture for thousands of years.
If Pebble Mine were developed, Native communities in southwest Alaska would be subjected to pollution from the mine, which has the potential to be larger than Utah’s infamous Bingham Canyon Mine, which has contaminated drinking water for thousands.
Lydia is an Alaska Native from the village of Igiugig on Lake Iliamna and the Kvichak River, which drains into Bristol Bay. She grew up fishing, and still returns home each summer to help her family catch salmon and gather food for winter, but spends most of her time organizing and teaching people about development proposals that threaten Bristol Bay’s salmon, wildlife, and Native culture.
“This land of bounty has provided for our families, our culture and our traditional way of life for tens of thousands of years,” Lydia said. “This land is what we call home. We need our lands and waters to stay pristine to continue living healthy lifestyles. We will still be here long after the mining companies have left.”
It is estimated that Pebble Mine, if developed, would extract more than 10 billion tons of rock, making it potentially larger than the Bingham Canyon Mine, which was also developed to excavate copper, gold and molybdenum. The Utah mine — where six billion tons of rock have been excavated, so far — covers nearly 27,000 acres with a pit that is three-quarters of a mile deep and more than 2.5 miles across, and has a groundwater contamination zone that extends for 72 square miles.
Acid leaching from the Utah mine’s waste rock has tainted drinking water for thousands of residents of Salt Lake City, and the mine’s “north zone” is so contaminated that it has been proposed as a federal Superfund site.
Concern that Pebble Mine could cause the same kind of environmental damage in Alaska has unified a vast coalition of sport and subsistence-fishing interests, commercial fishermen and seafood processors, Native groups, former state and federal regulators and elected officials, conservation groups, and even churches.
Pebble Limited Partnership, which includes Northern Dynasty Minerals and the giant mining company Anglo American, has waged its own public relations campaign to convince the public that the mine would be an economic boon to the Lake and Peninsula Borough region.
Who has won the hearts and minds of the Alaskans who would live closest to the Pebble Mine?
Residents’ votes are due by Oct. 4. After that, we’ll have an answer.