From the air, it looks like just another stretch of Alaska’s endless roadless tundra, filled with lakes and ponds, with a scattering of some of the state’s rugged mountains.
But this strip of land, home to forage bears and salmon farms some 320 kilometers southwest of Anchorage, has been a battleground for years.
The fight is over what is just below the surface: one of the richest deposits of copper, gold and other valuable metals in the world. It defines two of the state’s most important industries, mining and fishing, against each other.
A mining company plans to dig a well, more than a square kilometer and a third of a kilometer deep, over two decades to obtain the metals, estimated to be at least $ 300 billion.
Supporters say the project, known as Pebble Mine, it would be an economic boost for a remote region that missed the North Slope oil boom and another resource extraction development in the state in the past half century. It would employ almost 1,000 people, and the Canadian-based company, Northern Dynasty Minerals, would pay for infrastructure improvements in some Alaska native villages and provide cash dividends totaling at least $ 3 million for people in the area.
But the opposition has been widespread, in the region and across the state, with concerns about environmental damage and the potential to harm another critical resource: salmon. Fish is the main traditional subsistence food for many Alaskan natives in the region and the basis of a thriving sport fishing industry and, close to Bristol Bay, one of the largest commercial establishments wild salmon fishing in the world.
The mine will be located in two hydrographic basins that feed rivers that spawn fish. Opponents say the tailings left in the mining operation pose a risk if heavy metals or other contaminants from them enter groundwater or if the dams that hold the tailings fail in an earthquake.
Tom Collier, chief executive of Pebble Partnership, a northern dynasty subsidiary that develops the project, said the mine was designed to minimize these and other risks.
The deposit was discovered in the late 1980s and mine planning began in earnest about 15 years ago. He attracted opposition from the leaders of both parties from the beginning, when the battle lines between mining and fishing were established. But the project was aided by the pro-mining stance of the governor at the time, Sarah Palin.
Under President Barack Obama, the project was blocked in 2014 by the Environmental Protection Agency, largely due to concerns about the risks to salmon.
But Pebble Mine has gained new momentum with President Trump’s industry-friendly policies. While initially continuing its criticism of the project, the Environmental Protection Agency ended up reversing the Obama-era decision to block it.
On Friday, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a final environmental impact statement, or EIS, for the project. Under normal operations, the Corps wrote, the project would not result in “long-term changes in the health of commercial fishing in Bristol Bay”.
In addition to the open pit mine, the plan would include large dams for tailings, some toxic, resulting from mining and concentration of metals, 80 kilometers of roads and pipelines to transport the concentrate to a new port in Cook Entrada and a 165-meter gas pipeline. miles to a generating plant to power the operation.
In an interview this week, Collier described the launch of the final impact statement as “the most significant day in the odd 15 years of the Pebble project’s history”.
“It is really the first time that a federal agency has conducted a rigorous scientific review of the specific project that Pebble wants to build,” he said. The conclusion that the mine would not damage salmon fishing would be “unmistakable”, he added.
But in public comments on a draft environmental impact statement last year, opponents suggested that the review was not as rigorous. They pointed out numerous dangerous risks, including the potential for a tailings dam failure that could contaminate the waterways used in fish farming and hamper Bristol Bay fishing, which employs about 15,000 people.
Alaska is the most seismically active state in the country, and critics said that the Corps of Engineers did not take into account the risk of earthquakes or volcanic activities and that their analysis of dam designs was inadequate. Some of the dams would be hundreds of meters high.
Failures in tailings dams can trigger a sudden flood of contaminated manure with disastrous effects. A 2019 failure at an iron ore mine in Brazil, for example, killed more than 250 people. Given the remote location of the Pebble Mine, the risk to people may be low, but heavy metals and other contaminants can make nearby rivers toxic to fish.
This year, after the Corps sent a preliminary version of the final impact statement to federal and state agencies and other groups, criticism continued, according to documents obtained by opponents of the project. US Fisheries and Wildlife Service scientists, for example, wrote that the version failed to recognize that habitat destruction resulting from mine development “would erode the habitat diversity portfolio and the associated life history diversity that stabilizes the annual return of salmon to the Bristol Bay region “.
At a news conference this week, David Hobbie, head of Alaska’s Corps District Regulatory Division, said, “We did our best to address all the comments we received.”
Within a month or more, the Corps will make a final decision on whether the project will proceed. Approval is expected.
This will almost certainly not be the end of the story, however.
Even after the Corps’ latest review, “EIS is so needy and completely inadequate, I anticipate legal challenges,” said Brian Litmans, legal director of Trustees for Alaska, a nonprofit law firm.
The project will require more permits, mainly from the state, which may take three years to obtain. And if President Trump loses re-election, a Democratic government could act to block the bill once again.
In Alaska, public opinion polls across the state have consistently shown more opposition than support and, locally, anti-mine sentiments are even stronger. “Opposition is overwhelming across the bay,” said Litmans.
Opponents are focusing on an 11-hour change to one aspect of the project. In May, the Corps announced that it had changed its determination of what is called a “viable alternative that is less harmful to the environment” to the transport route between the mine and Cook Inlet.
The company and the Corps had favored a route that included a ferry crossing from Lake Iliamna, one of the largest in the United States. But after hearing concerns about the potential impact on winter travel and seal hunting on the lake, the Corps now says that a land-only route along the lake’s northern edge is preferred, although it may destroy several thousand people. acres of swamps.
Bristol Bay Native Corporation, one of 13 regional companies established in the 1970s to establish claims native to Alaskan lands, has subsurface rights to land that the route would traverse.
“We believe the subsoil will be affected” by the construction of a road and pipelines, said Daniel Cheyette, the corporation’s vice president of land and resources. “We do not grant permission to Pebble to use or impact them.”
As for the possibility of the company negotiating the matter, Cheyette said that, although he could not speak for the board of directors, “I believe that this is not negotiable”.
“We have been fighting this for a long time and we will continue to fight,” he said.
Other Alaska native groups, including the Pedro Bay village corporation on Lake Iliamna, also plan to retain access to their land.
But not all native Alaskan groups oppose the project.
A consortium of five companies in the region hopes to become a transport contractor for the mine. And the Iliamna village corporation, about 32 kilometers from the mine site, has already negotiated with the developer access to 68,000 acres of land it owns.
“We don’t see Pebble damaging the area as everyone claims,” said Lisa Reimers, a member of the corporation’s board, Iliamna Natives Ltd. “Pebble needs to do what’s right, because there are so many people watching.”
Reimers was raised in Iliamna, in a house that had no running water or electricity until she was 12 years old. Her parents, she said, “wanted the best for the family and grandchildren today.”
“They didn’t see Iliamna surviving without a project like Pebble.”