“I would have said yes to the mine project 20 years ago,” the retired politician said over the headset. “What I didn’t understand then was the size of this project, nor the connection of water to everything; the blood of this system is water, and it’ll bleed everywhere.”
Halford was flying low over the proposed site of the Pebble Mine, an enormous deposit of copper and gold smack in the middle of the two largest river systems of Southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay. For decades, there had been rumors about this region’s potential mineral deposits, and in 2001 a Canadian company called Northern Dynasty Minerals acquired the land rights and began digging exploratory holes. Word quickly spread about the magnitude of the strike: Northern Dynasty estimates that the Pebble deposit holds 107 million ounces of gold and 81 billion pounds of copper, enough to increase U.S. copper production by 20 percent. By 2007, Anglo American, one of the largest mining companies in the world, had partnered with Northern Dynasty, leveraging its financing and mining experience to acquire a fifty-fifty stake in the claim.
As we flew, Rick Halford followed the flow of winding rivers below, mimicking the path that millions of salmon take every year from the ocean to their breeding grounds.
But copper and gold aren’t the only treasures in the area: Bristol Bay holds the world’s largest salmon habitat, with over 30 million fish returning from the ocean every single year to swim up rivers to their spawning grounds; the 2017 run drew over 55 million salmon, one of largest ever recorded. This unique interplay between ocean, rivers and lakes is the last place left on the planet that supports wild salmon in such numbers, and the salmon in turn provide 14,000 full and seasonal jobs, about $1.5 billion in annual revenue, as well as food and cultural significance to the Native Alaskan tribes of the area. “You couldn’t find a worse place for the Pebble Mine if you tried,” Halford said earlier in the day, sitting at his home in Dillingham, Alaska. “[Bristol Bay] is not something that you can do again, this is the last place that you should experiment.”
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