The British mining giant Anglo American is scheming with Canadian-based Northern Dynasty Minerals to develop one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines, the Pebble Mine, in the watershed above Alaska’s pristine Bristol Bay. The proposed mine threatens southwestern Alaska’s most abundant and sustainable resource – salmon – and the people and wildlife in the region that depend on the salmon for their survival. But don’t worry, Anglo American, a mining conglomerate with revenues of 20.9 billion that earned over 2.5 trillion dollars last year and the ambition to become the world’s leading mining company, has promised that the two-mile wide and 2,000-feet deep mine, the planned destruction of 60 miles of salmon spawning habitat, a deepwater industrial port in endangered beluga whale habitat, and the 10 billion tons of contaminated mining waste that must be held back in perpetuity by earthen dams in an earthquake zone won’t harm Alaska’s natural resources. Wait a second…just how dumb does Anglo American think we are?
On October 23, 2007, Cynthia Carroll, Anglo American’s CEO, said “We treasure [Alaska’s natural] resources and will use the best science and technology to ensure that they are protected.” Really, ensure? That sounds like a guarantee – but it’s a guarantee that neither Cynthia Carroll nor anyone involved with developing the proposed Pebble Mine can make. The fact is that large-scale pit mines carry an inherent risk and an unfortunate record of surface and groundwater contamination. A recent review of 25 large-scale mines in the U.S. found that 19 of them violated water-quality standards. Obviously, some violations can be worse than others, but sometimes it doesn’t take much to cause long-term destruction. For example, it turns out that copper is toxic to fish and even minute increases above natural levels (two to ten parts per billion) in water can harm their ability to return to their spawning streams. Did I mention that copper will be mined at the headwaters of Bristol Bay’s famous salmon runs? And let’s not forget the 10 billion tons of contaminated mining waste that will have to be held back by giant earthen dams in an earthquake zone…forever.
I wonder if Ms. Carroll or Anglo American made the same kind of guarantees to the communities in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nevada, Ghana, and Ireland before pollutants from the company’s (or its affiliates’) operations escaped into the environment? Perhaps it’s the kind of promise that Anglo American’s joint venture vehicle for the Pebble Mine – the Pebble Partnership – made before it violated water-use permits it received from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources for its exploration of the proposed Pebble Mine site?
Of course, Anglo American and other companies don’t set out to violate laws and pollute our planet – at least I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt on those points – and they may sincerely believe the promises they make. But that does not mean we have to keep accepting guarantees that simply cannot be met. It’s a game we shouldn’t keep playing, especially when people’s livelihoods are on the line. There was a moving opinion piece in the Bristol Bay Times by Lydia Olympic, a Yupik/Sugpiaq from the Village of Igiugig, a small community located in southwestern Alaska near Lake Iliamna, which drains into Bristol Bay, and could be devastated by pollution from the mine. She said, “The large-scale mining could directly threaten the salmon that Alaska Native people have depended upon for thousands of years to sustain our culture. Anglo American, the company behind the project, says that the mine won't harm the fish. But, we know better. Salmon are very sensitive to change, and we do not want to be the experiment that sees if wild salmon and a massive open pit mine can co-exist. The risk is too high.” Lydia Olympic is right, with stakes this high, why should we unnecessarily experiment with people’s futures? Sometimes it’s okay if the risks are shared and everyone agrees to take the plunge, but that’s not the situation here – Ms. Carroll and the other executives from these mining companies will get paid regardless of what happens, especially if problems don’t occur for years to come. I don’t see them putting any of their livelihoods on the line in the same way they are gambling with the livelihood of thousands of Alaskans and the wildlife in the Bristol Bay area for generations to come.
It’s all so typical; we’ve heard it countless times before: Nobody could have predicted ... the earthquake would be that big ... the impermeable linings of the dams would leak ... the underground pipe would break and release pollutants into the groundwater for years before being discovered ... etc. You can add your own excuse.
Let’s make sure we never give Anglo American the opportunity to make these kinds excuses for the destruction of Bristol Bay or its watershed. Please take action now and sign NRDC’s petition telling Anglo American that the stakes are too high for us to accept its promises about Pebble Mine that it cannot keep.