Groups partner to warn of Bristol Bay mining risks

Posted: Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Bristol Bay Alliance announced that it has joined forces with Trout Unlimited, a cold-water fisheries conservation organization with a 50-year history of environmental protection efforts, to further its campaign to alert regional residents to what it sees as the dangers posed by mining development in the Bristol Bay region.

Northern Dynasty Mines Inc., subsidiary to the Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., is preparing permit applications for a huge open-pit mining operation it hopes to build in a mineral-rich caldera northwest of Iliamna near the headwaters of important salmon streams.

"The potential environmental impacts of these large, toxic open pit mines could have on Alaska's wild salmon and native rainbow trout populations is unprecedented," Brian Kraft, the alliance's founder and director, said in a press release.

Kraft launched the alliance in 2004 in response to rising mining interest and exploration, particularly by Northern Dynasty, which plans to extract gold, molybdenum, copper and other minerals from its proposed mine. No mining is currently occurring at what NDM calls its Pebble Project, but exploratory test drilling is proceeding as the company continues work on a feasibility study expected to be completed late this year or early next.

Other mining companies also have staked claims, some even larger than NDM's, around the caldera, and the region could eventually host several mines.

Public opinion has been mixed. Many see a mining district as an unprecedented opportunity for the Southcentral and Southwest Alaska economies, worth the risks to the environment posed by open pit mining. Others see those risks as too great, especially concerning the fish on which commercial, sport and subsistence fishers depend.

The area is the location of two major salmon drainages — the Nushagak River, among the world's largest king salmon runs, and the Kvichak River, historically the world's largest sockeye producer, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Kraft, owner of Alaska Sportsman's Lodge on the Kvichak, will serve as director of Trout Unlimited's Southwest Alaska-Bristol Bay program.

"When the Pebble proposal first reached the public, there were so many unanswered questions and few good sources of information concerning open pit mining and its potential damage to habitat and waterways," Kraft said. "Trout Unlimited and the Bristol Bay Alliance are working to fill those gaps."

People are beginning to ask tough questions, said Tim Bristol, Trout Unlimited's Alaska office director. They are "forming educated opinions regarding the huge risks a giant mining district could have on Southwest Alaska's wild salmon and trout."

Trout Unlimited will add the resources and expertise of its 147,000 members to the alliance's efforts, Bristol said.

For its part, Northern Dynasty Mines has worked to connect with residents of the remote communities within the watershed and around Bristol Bay to ease concerns about mining operations and to give assurances that the company is planning as safe a mine as possible.

Bruce Jenkins, chief operating officer for the company, has asked residents to "work with us" to design a mine that protects water, fisheries and other wildlife and that would have the least impact on the region's traditional values and lifestyles.

Jenkins as said the project would take a "no net loss" approach to fisheries protection efforts.

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