Villages oppose Pebble water plans

Diverting flow from important rivers for mine not OK, groups say

Posted: Monday, July 24, 2006

Tribal governments from Ekwok and Nondalton are asking the state of Alaska to reject Northern Dynasty Mines Inc.’s request to remove water from parts of the Bristol Bay watershed.

In a press release issued Thursday, Trout Unlimited, which last year joined a growing opposition to the company’s Pebble Mine project northwest of Iliamna, voiced concern over Northern Dynasty’s application for water rights.

The application would allow the company to remove water from Upper Talarik Creek and the north and south forks of the Koktuli River for mining operations.

Earlier this month, NDM filed three applications with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources seeking water rights in watersheds surrounding its project site. The purpose, NDM’s Web site says, is to “reserve the future right to utilize water within the specified areas for the purpose of building and operating the proposed Pebble Mine once it has been permitted.”

NDM is planning what would be one of the largest open pit gold, copper and molybdenum mines in the world. The Anchorage-based American company, a subsidiary of the Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Inc., is conducting a broad feasibility study of the mine project in preparation for seeking state and federal mining permits.

Mine opponents, including Richard King, Ekwok Village Council administrator, say if NDM is granted the water rights, the company could pump water from the rivers and mix it with mine waste in a tailing pond.

“Our village depends on these rivers and this action by Northern Dynasty is a direct threat to our culture and our way of life,” King said.

Ekwok, located along the Nushagak River, is downstream from the proposed mine. The Koktuli feeds the Mulchatna River, which drains into the Nushagak, well known for its king salmon. Ekwok and Nondalton are members of Alaska’s commercial fishing industry and international conservation groups.

“When this began, Northern Dynasty promised to stay out of Upper Talarik Creek, and now they’re going back on that promise, so it’s hard for me to believe what they’re saying anymore,” said Jack Hobson, president of the Nondalton Tribal Council.

The Upper Talarik is world famous for trophy rainbow trout, Trout Unlimited said, noting the creek flows into Lake Iliamna. The lake drains into the Kvichak River, which reportedly has produced more than a third of Bristol Bay’s sockeye harvest over the past 100 years.

David Harsila, spokesperson for the Alaska Independent Fishermen’s Association, representing about 400 Bristol Bay area fishermen, said NDM’s request for water rights showed “the grim reality of the need for water for mining purposes versus the absolute requirement of the same water for our precious salmon resource.”

“This is absolutely some of the most sensitive fish-rearing habitat in the state,” said Norman Van Vactor, Bristol Bay manager of Peter Pan Seafoods.

Brian Kraft, director of Trout Unlimited’s Southwest Alaska-Bristol Bay programs, agrees.

“We’re siding with the fish and all of those who depend on them,” he said.

Representatives of sportfishing groups have joined Trout Unlimited in opposing the proposed water diversion, including the International Federation of Fly Fishers.

RP Van Gytenbeek, federation president, called the project “totally unneeded and unacceptable.”

Northern Dynasty’s application for water rights does not mean it has secured or would soon secure permits to build the mine. It is not expected to apply for permits until 2007 or 2008, and permitting likely would take another two to three years. That period would include in-depth scrutiny by government agencies and periods for public comment and review.

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