Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Rock-Solid Consequences of the Pebble Mine

By Ashley ZhangPublished September 23, 2021

Salmon swimming in the Bristol Bay region
Developers have proposed building a massive mine in one of the most pristine regions of the United States, but the massive risks associated with the project mean the mine would do more harm than good.

200 miles Southwest of Anchorage, Alaska, is the world’s largest salmon run, where 30 million sockeye salmon migrate annually. There is also the Pebble Deposit, a large deposit of minerals such as copper and gold. It is here in the headwaters of Bristol Bay that developers have proposed building a Pebble Mine to extract these natural resources. Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) previously denied such a proposal, it retracted this decision after the Pebble Limited Partnership, the mining company responsible for the Pebble Mine proposition, put forth plans for a new and smaller 20-year mining project under Donald Trump’s presidency. 


While advocates of the Pebble Mine argue that it will seamlessly fit in with the thriving $500 million local salmon industry, waste contamination will cause undue adverse impacts on fish populations. For example, contamination like tailings (toxic byproducts) that result from the mine’s ore processing must be stored in dams, which are the leading cause of modern mining accidents and average one failure annually around the world. Furthermore, these probabilities do not consider Alaska’s seismic activity, Pebble’s proposed dam designs, and the company’s financial uncertainty, all of which heighten the risk of failure. 


So what would happen in the event of a failure? The proposed mine site sits squarely in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, one of the largest commercial wild salmon fisheries in the world. According to an EPA report, a failure as miniscule as mine water failure would adversely impact 51 crucial miles of salmon streams. Moreover, a tailings dam failure would mean that major rivers in the watershed would not support any salmon for at least 10 years nor recover for (potentially) decades to come. 


Any accident resulting from a mine would have profound impacts on the salmon industry in Bristol Bay. Building one, therefore, would prioritize a short-term financial benefit from extracting minerals over a sustainable bed of economic activity from local fisheries. 


Furthermore, a loss of salmon due to the Pebble Mine would also severely impact the local indigenous community. For the 25 recognized tribal governments in Bristol Bay, fishing has long been part of their culture, with natives relying on salmon for both sustenance and spiritual needs. Any drop in fish populations resulting from mine contamination would be felt particularly by the native people within a long history of environmental racism against the indigenous population. In this case, allowing the project to continue would threaten both the natives’ main food source and traditional culture that have existed for thousands of years. 


While the impact of the Pebble Mine is already significant, it will only grow as the mine inevitably expands. As alluded previously, the Pebble Limited Partnership would not make a substantial profit in the smaller 20-year mine; in fact, one independent analysis claimed that the company would lose $3 billion. Based on chief executive Ronald Thiessen’s secret pitches to potential investors, the aim of Pebble Limited Partnership’s current proposal is to be a mere stepping stone for future expansions that will extract more of the mineral deposit. Despite CEO Tom Collier’s emphasis on the environmental friendliness of the smaller mine, once the project’s true intentions were revealed earlier this year, he resigned. These actions have further caused distrust in the Pebble Mine’s ability to safely extract minerals without also threatening salmon and indigenous populations. 


The impacts of the Pebble Mine are not solely limited to Bristol Bay. Much of the pushback against the project is also due to construction of necessary infrastructure. With the initial expensive investment in logistics networks and infrastructure in place, costs for future mines in the Southwest Alaska region will be significantly lower. This will make the local mining industry’s future expansion more economically feasible, and thus, inevitable. For example, as Tom Collier explained, the Pebble Mine would pave the way for the nearby proposed Donlin gold mine. With the precedents it would set and other mines it would enable, the Pebble Mine would be the first step towards exploitation of Southwest Alaska. 


Although the mineral deposits in Alaska may be tempting to extract, doing so in one of the most pristine natural environments in the United States would result in numerous consequences. It is well-documented that pollution resulting from mining would have severe adverse effects on the salmon population, amount to sustenance and cultural eradication for Native Americans, and result in grave environmental ramifications in the Southwest Alaska region. As the executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay Alannah Hurley says, “If this place is not worth saving, what is?

Works Cited

Photo by Jason Ching