We’re sitting in an 18-foot skiff at the head of the Kvichak River next to the village of Igiugig, looking out over Lake Iliamna. It’s the beginning of September, and during the summer more than 2 million sockeye salmon swam upstream to lay eggs in and around the lake — one of the most active spawning grounds in the world.
At 77 miles long and 22 miles wide, Iliamna is the largest lake in Alaska, covering 1,600 square miles. Thirty-two major tributaries drain into Lake Iliamna, whose deepest areas reach nearly 1,000 feet. The Kvichak River connects it to Bristol Bay and the ocean.
Brian Kraft owns three lodges in Bristol Bay, including the Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge, a few miles downriver from us on the Kvichak. “The proposed mine site is 48 miles that direction,” he says, pointing across the lake.
Kraft is referring to the Pebble Project, a controversial prospective mine that has garnered national attention for the past 15 years. Many environmental advocacy groups, as well as commercial and recreational fishermen, vehemently oppose the mine because of its potential impact on the salmon fishery; proponents, however, say it will bring jobs to the region.
The Pebble Limited Partnership proposes to develop a copper, gold and molybdenum mine at the source of the Kvichak and Nushagak watersheds. Together, those systems cover more than half of the land in Bristol Bay.
The initial mine footprint extends around 12 square miles, and the 1-by-1½-mile pit would be about 1,800 feet deep. Approximately 1.3 billion tons of ore would be processed over 20 years, at a rate of 180,000 tons per day. That’s about 10 percent of the total deposit. But some critics say size is irrelevant in the face of the risks, which include everything from a major tailings dam failure to the potential long-term impacts on fish.
Pebble’s application contains the majority of the mine’s footprint to the North Fork Koktuli tributary. Those waters provide rearing habitat for Chinook and spawning grounds for silver salmon. The area is also home to such resident fish as Arctic grayling, Dolly Varden and rainbow trout.
While the mine plan has changed multiple times since Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., the company that owns Pebble, first purchased the rights to the land in 2001, the debate surrounding Pebble has remained the same. It is widely viewed as one of the few issues that unifies commercial, subsistence and sport fishermen in Bristol Bay, who historically have not agreed on regulatory and zoning issues. “We have to unite to have a resource to fight over later,” Kraft says.
Kraft has been fighting the mine for more than a decade. In 2004, he formed the Bristol Bay Alliance to unify and amplify the voices of those in the region who oppose the mine. In 2006, Trout Unlimited joined the effort and began advocating on a larger scale.
At the center of the debate is the mine’s potential impact on sockeye salmon — the target species of the commercial fishing industry. Bristol Bay has the largest wild sockeye run in the world, with millions of fish returning each year. Also running through the watershed are some of the world’s most popular sportfishing waters for trophy rainbows, along with sockeye and Chinook, or king, salmon. The Nushagak River drainage, connected to the proposed mine site by way of the Koktuli and Mulchatna rivers, hosts the largest Chinook sport fishery in Bristol Bay.
Kraft revs the engine and steers us away from the lake and down the Kvichak. Ten minutes later, the Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge comes into view. Kraft docks the boat, and we walk up a steep wooden staircase, past an outdoor bar and signs that point to a steam room and cabins.
It costs between $1,600 and $2,000 a night to stay here. A four-day, four-night all-inclusive package is $7,975 per person. Kraft points out that his lodge is at the high end of the scale (sport anglers can fish the region for much less), and he worries that the mine would make business more difficult.
“We specifically picked this location because of the Kvichak River,” he says. “And the Kvichak is basically the artery that provides life to this region. Without the Kvichak, the salmon runs aren’t here. And without the salmon runs, bears aren’t here. Rainbow trout aren’t here. People aren’t here.”
Lodges, Tourism, Jobs
Sport fishing is the principal source of tourism revenue in Bristol Bay. According to Trout Unlimited, anglers spend approximately $58 million in the area annually. Combined with recreational hunting, fishing supports more than 1,000 full- and part-time jobs. But those economics aren’t necessarily reflected in the communities closest to the mine site.
“Right now, there’s not enough jobs for the people who need jobs,” says Lisa Reimers, a board member of Iliamna’s village corporation, Iliamna Natives Ltd., which works with Pebble. Unlike tourism, Reimers says, Pebble offers a chance for people to continue living in the community.
“Sport fishing [is] seasonal. It’s not a big game-changer for the locals out here because it’s not a year-round job,” she says. “It’s not something where we say, ‘Hey, more lodges and more tourism is going to make a difference here.’ It’s not.”
In her view, Pebble is a positive in that it offers year-round jobs for locals. “If we don’t have that, we don’t see a future of how we keep our communities alive. People will continue to move — which they already are doing — to go find jobs elsewhere.”
The situation is different in Igiugig, where village and tourism operations have combined to oppose the Pebble project. AlexAnna Salmon, an Igiugig Tribal Council member and the village council president, says the lodges have provided opportunities for young people in the community to learn about the sportfishing industry.
“The interest in guiding was never there with my generation, and now it’s being planted with the next one,” Salmon says. “And a lot of it is the increase in lodges and, I think, the fly-fishing academy. But now we’re raising a group of young people that want to have their own lodge, and want to be their own guides and run the show. So it’s pretty exciting that they’ve identified a future in this tourism-subsistence way of life and have chosen that over mining.”
Salmon says the village has a good relationship with lodges, though the relationship can be complex. Sport fishing came to the region uninvited, and it was through the village’s efforts that the lodges and village have found mutual benefit. Salmon hopes to increase cultural awareness among lodge visitors; she says they need to understand that the place they are visiting isn’t an uninhabited wilderness — her people have lived there for thousands of years.
Salmon says the mine won’t fix the problems the communities face around the region because the necessary structural change has not occurred. They range from tribal disenfranchisement to declining participation in commercial fishing by locals.
“There’s this backstory why we have this inequality today,” Salmon says. “So it has nothing to do with the resource itself. It has everything to do with the systems that colonization have put in place. And now you’re saying that Pebble’s going to come in and be the superhero. No. They’re going to empower the corporations that have granted rights-of-way, and put them first, and the division between the haves and the have-nots is just going to grow.”
A Collection of Risks
The Pebble Limited Partnership states that only 0.01 percent of all water entering the bay will be affected by the mine’s footprint. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in its draft environmental review of the project, says the chances of a major tailings dam failure are extremely low — about one in 2,000. But that risk would continue indefinitely. Potentially acid-generating tailings and non-acid-generating bulk tailings would be disposed in two tailings facilities that would cover a total of 3,867 acres (six square miles). Water discharges from the pit lake would require water treatment in perpetuity after the mine closes. That strikes many people as an impossible bargain.
In its 80-page executive summary, the Army Corps concluded that the main impacts on recreational fishing will be limited to the mine site and would largely affect only the quality of fishing. It acknowledges that sport fishing could shrink, especially during construction, which would likely continue through subsequent operations. However, it also claims that the mine could increase fishing opportunities because of redirected waterways and new roads that could make fishing spots more accessible.
“The draft Environmental Impact Statement concludes that there will be no impacts to harvest levels because there’s no decrease in resource and abundance … no long-term change to the health of Bristol Bay,” says Pebble CEO Tom Collier, who would receive a $12 million bonus if the project is green-lighted within a certain period of time, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission and published reports. Collier says concerns about long-term impacts are unfounded because they are based on environmental issues from mines built at a time when regulatory processes were nonexistent.
“We definitely are aware that there’s [sport fishing] activity down at the mouth of Upper Talarik,” says Pebble spokesperson Mike Heatwole. “We know that there’s fishing opportunities over at the Newhalen. In fact, we’ve worked closely with local operators to make sure that our helicopter flights don’t impact their experience.”
Concerns about a lack of sufficient scrutiny in Pebble’s federal permitting process have been voiced on the federal level. In the Environmental Protection Agency’s 100 pages of comments on the Army Corps’ draft EIS, the agency says the Army Corps had not sufficiently assessed the mine’s impacts to sport fishing or to the Bristol Bay fishery as a whole. Among its critiques, the agency says declines in fishing could occur because of a “perceived loss of quality in the fishery” due to the mine.
The Army Corps doesn’t consider the possibility of a large tailings failure in its draft EIS, though it could have drastic effects to the Nushagak and Kvichak drainage. Other detrimental effects on the fishery might not be felt for decades. The project proposal includes an open-pit mine, storage for tailings, water-management ponds, a mill, a natural-gas-fired power plant and other facilities. Daniel Schindler, a scientist at the University of Washington, says building infrastructure in that habitat could have a negative effect on the ecosystem, in addition to the other risks.
“Fish need habitat to flourish. And if you start taking away habitat, you start taking away their ability to deal with other stresses, like climate change,” he says.
Schindler’s biggest concern is what the mining infrastructure would do to the landscape. For instance, he says that while the coldest streams are not necessarily the most productive now, that may change as the climate warms. Streams that produce good runs of salmon now may disappear because they get too hot or dry up.
“I think it’s a mistake to think about the single nastiest risk,” Schindler says. “I think we have to think about this as a collection of risks, each of which has a probability of occurring with some potential impact. And the decision makers need to look at that menu of potential problems and ask what’s reasonable. What’s a reasonable risk to take?”
Back at the lodge, rain falls. The day is gray, but the water is still a deep turquoise. “We didn’t inherit this from previous generations; we’re borrowing this from future generations,” Kraft says. “Maybe it’s because I have my four daughters that love being here and love fishing, and one of them caught that fish right there, my oldest daughter,” he adds, pointing to a cast on the wall. “So we’re borrowing this from my daughters. And it’s my responsibility to make sure it’s all here, intact and functioning when I give it to them.”
Reporting for this story was made possible in part by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue.