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A mine similar to the one proposed for the Bristol Bay area.
Photo: Ben Knight.

This past Christmas, I named Anglo-American Mining Company CEO “Cyanide” Cynthia Carroll the “world’s biggest scrooge” for planning to plop one of the world’s biggest gold mines right atop the richest salmon fishery in the world in Alaska’s Bristol Bay — and wreaking massive devastation to the landscape, wildlife, and economy of Alaska (you can see pictures of this landscape in the extraordinary book Rivers of Life by Robert Glenn Ketchum and Bruce Hampton).

Well, my little article got some big attention from Anglo-American, and spokesflack Sean Magee struck back in a lengthy riposte, which I’ve excerpted below (full version here).

In Glenn’s article, he talks about the “gold lust” of mining company CEOs who want to gild their bathrooms and fill their swimming pools with the precious yellow metal. Unfortunately, the gold mine he’s referring to will actually be a copper mine. As much as 95% of the recoverable metal contained in the Pebble ore body is copper. Somehow, a copper toilet bowl, or filling a swimming pool with pennies, just doesn’t create the image of a greedy corporate executive Glenn was shooting for.

When I pressed Magee on this point, he clarified that 95 percent refers to the weight, not the value. According to him, it becomes 30 percent when you compare the value of the gold to the copper. Of course, with gold prices hitting $900 an ounce and investors rushing into gold, the gold part of the mine is becoming a lot more valuable. But mining companies don’t like to talk about gold, because 85 percent of global demand is driven by jewelry; it’s hard to defend the destruction that accompanies gold mining when almost all of it goes to make bling. I also admit, I had a hard time believing Magee — the email address he used to send me his letter ends in “@hdgold.com.”

Regardless, let’s talk about copper. Here’s what Magee says is so great about it:

Among some of copper’s many uses, as described by the International Copper Association, copper is used in computers to build integrated circuits, chips, and printed circuit boards — many computer makers are now using copper in computer chips instead of aluminum, which makes their production cheaper and allows a computer to make faster calculations; copper is widely used as a superior conductor of electricity — almost all electronic devices rely on copper wiring of some kind; copper is used in water piping, as an inexpensive, water-proof, corrosion-resistant building material — The Statue of Liberty, for example, contains 179,220 pounds of copper — and in-house fixtures, cookware, and flatware; and copper is used in medicine — such as copper-64 and copper-67 isotopes — to study brain function and to treat cancer. Hybrid cars use about twice as much copper as traditional vehicles …

Freedom = copper. But copper equals dead salmon.

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Salmon near proposed Pebble Mine site.
Photo: Ben Knight.

According to a recent study by fisheries scientists at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and Oregon State University, exposure to even tiny concentrations of copper robs salmon of much of their sense of smell, which they use to do everything from finding a mate to avoiding predators and polluted water, recognizing their kin, and finding their way back to the rivers where they spawn.

But it’s not just salmon — mining pollution affects the whole ecosystem, with heavy metal particles finding their way into the cells of everything from moss to caribou and bears. Mining kills people, too. The Red Dog mine in Alaska, for instance, reported emitting 8,563 pounds of carcinogens in 2002 — more than 30 entire states.

And the Pebble Mine would produce an enormous amount: its tailings pond alone will be 14 square miles, more than 10 times the size of New York’s Central Park. That’s a 14-square-mile dead zone on top of an extraordinarily rich ecosystem currently teeming with bald eagles, brown bears (according to Trout Unlimited‘s Tim Bristol, because of the amount of salmon available, the bears in this region are some of the fattest found on the planet), caribou, wolves, moose, and even one of the Earth’s only two known populations of freshwater seals.

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Bear awaits salmon dinner near the proposed mine site.
Photo: Ben Knight.

Even if Pebble is as safe as Anglo-American says it will be, there will be major impacts on the Bristol Bay ecosystem. Even heavy metal dust from the trucks that will be carting minerals back and forth could severely contaminate the rivers. But outside of the horrendous impacts of what will happen, there’s also the unknown. Anglo-American will be storing all its 2.5 billion tons of waste behind a massive earthen dam that will actually be bigger than China’s notorious Three Gorges Dam (goldflack Magee says it won’t be “the tallest” in the world, but said nothing about other measures of size). If, at some point in the next million years or so, an earthquake or some other accident in this highly geologically unstable region releases the 2.5 billion tons of waste the mine is projected to produce, that could mean death for the salmon and much of the extraordinarily rich Bristol Bay ecosystem.

Pebble Mine executive Bruce Jenkins recognized as much when he told a public meeting of Alaska natives in 2005, “We’re committed to preserving your subsistence way of life. Does that mean there will be no effects on your subsistence way of life? No, of course not. How could you have an open-pit tailings pond with zero effect on your subsistence way of life? The real question is what’s the nature, the timing and the magnitude of the effect.”

The good news is that Earthworks is running an ad in the National Jeweler magazine (a trade publication) asking jewelers to oppose the development of the mine — and not source any of their jewelry from Bristol Bay watershed. But citizens can help, too. Click here to contact Anglo-American and let them know you oppose turning Alaska’s great salmon wonderland into Cyanide Cynthia’s toxic dump.