How Alaska Mining Could Impact the Wild Salmon Population

By: Paul Greenberg  |  March/April 2012
In Alaska's Bristol Bay, the wild salmon fishery may be threatened by possible mining for copper and other minerals.
Each year 40 million salmon migrate into Alaska's Bristol Bay, providing more than half our wild sockeye catch. But as I flew over the area last spring I realized how quickly we could lose this.
My pilot, Rick Halford, a former Republican Alaska state senator, banked his Cessna and pointed off to the proposed site of Pebble Mine and the dams it would entail. "That's where they would attach the anchors for the dam," he said over the airplane headset. "To contain the slag they're anticipating, it would have to go from here all the way over to that mountain over there. And way ahead you can see where they would put the other dam. You have to see it from up here to grasp the arrogance of it all."
Pebble Mine is the brainchild of the Canadian prospector Northern Dynasty and Anglo American, a large corporation with operations including South Africa's De Beers diamond mines. The two companies hold the mineral rights to 186 square miles in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, a vast deposit that may contain more than $300 billion of copper, gold and molybdenum.
The potential impact of the mine on the Bristol Bay watershed is currently under review by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is expected to make a draft assessment available for comment in April. Potential risks to the fishery include the enormous amount of water needed for mining (a projected 35 billion gallons of water per year would be drawn from salmon streams), the billions of tons of tailings (stored in earthen dams in an earthquake-prone area) and acid drainage that even in tiny quantities could destroy a salmon's sense of smell and homing instinct.
The mine is not the only threat: the World Wildlife Fund and numerous other groups are petitioning to protect Bristol Bay from offshore drilling for oil and gas. At stake, says WWF, are fisheries generating $4.1 to $5.4 billion annually and 12,000 jobs. And one of our last abundant sources of truly wild food.
For more information, visit this site dedicated to saving Bristol Bay at