LOS ANGELES, California, October 14, 2009 (ENS) – The Natural Resources Defense Council is mounting a new campaign to save Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the world’s most productive salmon fishery, from the development of Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska, one of the largest gold and copper mines ever proposed.

“There are few human activities as toxic as large-scale mining,” said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of NRDC’s marine mammal protection project.

“The Pebble Mine project could lead to widespread water contamination, which would destroy the salmon runs of the Bristol Bay watershed and thereby devastate the native communities and abundant wildlife the salmon have supported for thousands of years,” Reynolds said.

The Pebble copper-gold-molybdenum deposit is half owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., a mineral exploration and development company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and publicly traded in Canada and the United States.

The other half of the project is owned by Anglo American plc based in London, UK, one of the world’s largest diversified mining groups. Together, they call themselves the Pebble Partnership.

The mine proposal has become a major political issue in Alaska, with pro-mining forces ranged against native villages and commercial and sport fishermen.

Working with local conservation, tribal, and recreational organizations, as well as its own members, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s BioGems initiative to save Bristol Bay will spearhead a national campaign harnessing the power of citizen activism to keep the mine from ever breaking ground and to advance long-term conservation of the area.

Bristol Bay, the eastern-most arm of the Bering Sea, is home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery as well as strong runs of chum salmon, silver salmon and king salmon.

The proposed Pebble Mine site would create a two-mile wide open pit mine, thousands of feet deep, directly next to Lake Iliamna, which feeds a 40,000-square mile watershed and Bristol Bay.

As much as 9.1 billion tons of toxic mining discharge would be produced and stored in constructed ponds, covering at least 10 square miles.

Three of the tallest dams in the world would be constructed to hold waste from the mine, including cyanide, sulfuric acid, arsenic, selenium, and other toxic substances.

The mining pit, miles of roads covering the Pebble site and the dams all run the risk of polluting nearby rivers, ground and surface waters critical to the health of Bristol Bay, says NRDC.

“Pebble Mine is a project that, by its nature and size, threatens not only the natural resources of southwest Alaska on a staggering scale, but the economic foundation of communities throughout the Bristol Bay region,” said Andrew Wetzler, senior attorney and director of NRDC’s wildlife conservation project.

Both the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers and the salmon industry they support could be affected by the proposed Pebble Mine operations. These two Bay tributaries host the world’s largest sockeye and king salmon runs.

Salmon is one of southwestern Alaska’s most valuable renewable resources, supporting one of only two freshwater harbor seal populations in the world, generating tens of thousands of jobs and over $300 million in revenue each year.

The salmon also support a vast ecosystem, feeding grizzly bears, eagles, wolves, beluga whales, and killer whales.

Bristol Bay is an ecosystem surrounded by tundra, crisscrossed by rivers, and dotted with national and state parks, wildlife refuges and the largest freshwater lake in Alaska.

At this point, the Pebble Partnership is conducting prefeasibility studies and environmental baseline work supported by a $70 million budget in 2009 alone.

Pebble’s site work includes environmental studies ranging from water monitoring to fish counting. Field work includes exploration drilling, and support services.

Upon completion of a preliminary mine plan, the company says it will share this information with Bristol Bay residents and other interested stakeholders prior to the onset of permitting.

“Having a preliminary mine plan will help Alaskans understand the facts about the opportunity Pebble presents for the region and the state. It will begin to answer the many questions we have been asked about how Pebble intends to operate a mine in the region and meet its commitment to coexist with the fishery in Bristol Bay,” said Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively.

The company says it is bringing all exploratory equipment in by helicopter and using special tundra pads as platforms to cover ground around exploratory drill rigs, “ensuring that little to no impact is made by humans or machines on the earth below.”

But the conservationists are not persuaded that the mine will not harm this fragile ecosystem. NRDC’s campaign to protect Bristol Bay and its watershed is part of the nonprofit organization’s larger Biogems initiative launched in 2001 to defend exceptional, imperiled ecosystems.

Previous NRDC campaigns forced Mitsubishi and the Mexican government to abandon plans to build a massive industrial salt plant on a lagoon in southern Baja California, Mexico, that is a critical breeding area for the Pacific gray whale, and persuaded the Timber Products Company in Alaska to drop plans for a veneer mill that would have threatened the Tongass National Forest.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.