National Jeweler Network

Public Policy & Issues

Proposed Pebble mine is high risk, study finds

January 17, 2014


Opponents of the proposed Pebble mine say the Environmental Protection Agency needs to step in to protect the Bristol Bay watershed’s wild sockeye salmon fishery. (Photo credit: Travis Rummel)

Washington--In what is being viewed as a victory for opponents of the Pebble mine project in Alaska, a final scientific assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency has found that severe impacts and risks are associated with large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed.

Now, mine opponents are calling on the Obama administration to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to protect the watershed by restricting harmful mine waste disposal, essentially blocking development of Pebble.

As proposed, the Pebble mine would be North America’s largest open-pit gold and copper mine and would be situated in the Bristol Bay watershed in southwest Alaska.

While mining companies have said the project would be done in an environmentally responsible way and would bring much-needed jobs to the area, opponents, including jewelers, contend that it would cause irreversible damage to the area and its economy. 

Bristol Bay is home to the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery, which produces nearly half of the world’s supply of sockeye salmon. It provides 14,000 full- and part-time jobs and is valued at $480 million annually.

Over the past several years, a number of jewelers, including Ben Bridge Jeweler, Tiffany & Co., Zale Corp. and independents such as Leber Jeweler Inc. in Chicago, have signed Earthworks’ pledge to boycott gold from the mine if it’s ever developed.

In its peer-reviewed study, the EPA concluded that even under routing operation, mining the Pebble deposit would have severe and lasting consequences, including destroying up to 94 miles of salmon streams and 5,350 acres of wetlands, lakes and ponds. 

Mining in the bay also would harm 33 miles of streams through reduced flows, resulting in reduced salmon production, and generate water pollution from billions of tons of toxic mine waste that would require capture and treatment long after mining concludes, and potentially in perpetuity, the study states.

Jewelers, commercial fisherman, investors, conservation organizations and Alaska Native leaders have spoken out in support of the study’s findings and now want the EPA to take the next step.

“There are some places where mining cannot be done without forever damaging landscapes, wildlife, businesses and communities. Bristol Bay is one such place. We, along with many of our fellow jewelers, urge the EPA to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to safeguard Bristol Bay and the communities and fishery it supports,” said Tiffany Chairman and CEO Michael Kowalski, one of the most outspoken opponents of the mine.

Last September, mining company Anglo American withdrew from the Pebble mine project. Chief Executive Mark Cutifani said while Pebble was a “deposit of rare magnitude and quality,” the company opted to drop out after re-evaluating its long-term project options.

Northern Dynasty is now the sole remaining company eyeing development of the Pebble mine. Rio Tinto owns a 19 percent stake in Northern Dynasty, but the mining company said in December that it intends to undertake a strategic review of its stake in Northern Dynasty and may divest, mentioning the Pebble mine as a specific consideration.

“Rio Tinto will consider the Pebble project’s fit with the group’s strategy of investing in and operating long-life and expandable assets, and with the strategy for its copper business,” the mining company said.