Experts share concerns over effects from mines

Posted: Sunday, October 21, 2007

In order to break the ice with her audience, Carol Ann Woody's first slide showed her with a 49-inch northern pike cradled in her arms. She had a big grin on her face as she told the audience how she happened to grab onto the enormous fish, but when she touched on what happens when zinc mixes with copper, she said the audience wouldn't want to eat that pike.

"When these two are together it's a cocktail of contaminants and we know very little of how cocktails affect fish," Woody said. "The pike I was holding in the beginning, you wouldn't want to eat that pike."

She wouldn't tell the audience exactly where she happened upon that fish, but she did say that it was caught in the Kvichak watershed in Lake Clark National Park, a watershed that could see some tremendous changes should the Pebble gold and copper mine development go forward.

"If there is development there, it's likely the effects will be felt throughout the whole watershed," she said. "There's a lot of ways that heavy metals or other contaminants from a mine site could be carried."

Woody, who holds a Ph.D. in fisheries biology and has spent more than 25 years researching fish in Alaska, painted a grim picture of what the Pebble gold and copper mine could do to the sockeye salmon fishery of Bristol Bay at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture building during Wednesday's presentation on mine toxins. Pamela Miller, who has a Master's degree in environmental science and is the executive director of the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, depicted an equally grim outcome of the impact the Chuitna coal mine and the Pebble mine would have on surrounding communities. And even though many people who were against the mines attended, still others voiced their opinion that the mines are as much a necessity as the Bristol Bay fishery.

The development of large mines can lead to habitat loss or degradation, Woody said. These mines are prone to what Woody calls acid rock drainage, or the leaching of sulfuric acid into the soil, which deposits heavy metals and organics such as cyanides. Mines also deal with sewage in the form of tailing ponds and tons of waste rock.

"(Bristol Bay) is one of a handful of commercial fisheries that is considered sustainable," she said, adding that returns are between 3.5 and 65 million fish every year. "About 99 percent is going to be waste, it's not going to be ore."

The mine's footprint is proposed to be 30 miles long, and Woody said even though Canadian mining company, Northern Dynasty, is considering changing the development from an open pit to underground mining, the same mix of organics, sulfuric acid and heavy metals would still contaminate the fishery.

"Two parts per billion to 10 parts per billion (of copper), a salmon can lose its sense of smell," she said. "They won't recognize home, predators, prey, kin, mates, and if you put yourself in their fins you would go, 'Oh my gosh, that would be really bad.'"

Miller worked with the National Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences doing GIS mapping of toxic waste sites from the mining, oil and gas industries on St. Lawrence Island. She and her colleagues look at the impacts these industries have on communities living "downstream and downwind" of these plants. Mercury is a big concern, especially for those who rely on fish for subsistence, she said. Rather than concerning herself with the health of the fishery, she's concerned with the health of the communities that rely on those fisheries.

"(The risks) outweigh the potential benefits," she said. "I would question the necessity of developing the (Pebble) mine in a fragile area where fisheries are at risk."

After the two presentations were finished, community members brought forth dialogue that questioned the scientists' viewpoint on the mine itself, expressed anger over the fact that not all of the information on the Pebble Mine is made public and voiced their own opinions on whether or not the Pebble and Chuitna mines are a necessity.

George Stringham, who comes from a mining family, helped industries meet pollution standards kept by the Environmental Protection Agency and still make a profit.

"When I began consulting earlier it was with the motto 'making good conservation good business,'" he said.

When it comes to the Pebble copper and gold mine, he doesn't see the need to mine gold because, he said, it will still be in the ground 50 to 100 years from now.

"By that time the Bristol Bay fishery may have fallen prey to other things," he said.

With the world's oil reserves decreasing and demand for energy going up, Stringham said prices will escalate and we'll face a serious shortage.

"It could be 50 years before non-pollution alternative energy sources have the technological excellence and worldwide distribution to replace oil as a primary energy source," he said. "In the meantime the only thing to fall back on is coal. (There is) very little chance to stop the coal mine from opening."

Clark Whitney Jr. has fished and hunted near Dillingham for 37 years. To him it makes no sense to sacrifice the Bristol Bay fishery for the sake of 70 years of jobs. He said he can remember the first caribou he shot at 13 near the shores of Lake Iliamna.

"How would (the population centers) feel if (the mine) was at the headwaters of Skilak Lake and Tustumena," he said. "Why take the risk of destroying a renewable resource that could continue on for thousands of years?"

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at

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