The wild salmon season in Alaska just wrapped up, and if you sprang for any bright red fresh sockeye, it might have spawned in the rivers that empty out into Bristol Bay, a rugged region in the state’s southwest corner. As the Los Angeles Times recently wrote:
It is the largest sockeye run in the world, accounting for more than a quarter of wild salmon harvested in the United States, feeding millions at a time when fisheries are dwindling across the globe.
But they found gold in those hills: Specifically, Northern Dynasty Minerals, a mining company, found potentially $300 billion of gold and copper—North America’s largest deposits. Getting to that massive amount of precious metal would require an equally massive mine: Perhaps the world’s largest, the open-pit mine would involve the excavation of 12 billion tons of earth. (The mine is named, unpersuasively, Pebble.) Alaska is “a state that rarely turns down a major mine permit,” but this is a colossal clash between a couple of great Alaskan natural resources—salmon and very bright, shiny objects—and the debate’s already at “fever pitch,” according to an official at Northern Dynasty.
The potential problems are obvious, environmentalists say: The mine would dry up the streams and acidify the surrounding waters, and the copper dust would throw off the salmon’s genetic radar that leads them back to their spawning grounds. Northern Dynasty has pointedly not ruled out using cyanide to extract the metals, a method that has polluted ground water elsewhere. And the salmon are the foundation for almost everything else—bears, eagles, the traditional diet of the local Native Americans—in this region.
As the LA Times very smartly observes, “The outcome may hinge less on environmental values than on which economic resource Alaskans value most.” The mine’s on state land, which means that the Alaska Department of Natural Resources controls its destiny, and the department’s commissioner is—inevitably—a former mining executive. But the Republican governor might have some sympathy for the local environment: She named one of her daughters Bristol.