The Nushagak and Kvichak rivers that flow into southern Alaska's Bristol Bay, along with their tributaries, are home to the last great wild salmon fishery in the world.
For more than 10,000 years, indigenous families have sustainably harvested salmon returning to the rivers during their annual migration. The same waters support a commercial fishery worth U.S. $350 million for its rainbow trout, char, dolly varden, and five salmon species.
But a proposed, 2-mile-deep (3.2-kilometer-deep) open pit mine at the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers has tribes and environmental groups worried. Opponents say the Pebble Mine, in its production of copper and gold, could consume 35 billion gallons of water each year that normally course through nearby streams.
In turn it could produce 10 billion tons of waste, including antimony, arsenic, copper, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, zinc, and sulfate. To contain the waste, the mining company would build an impoundment taller than Hoover Dam, which could further impede the fishery. The tribes and environmental groups are asking the Environmental Protection Agency to use the Clean Water Act to prevent Pebble Mine from going forward.
Mike Heatwole, vice president of public affairs for the Pebble Limited Partnership, said all of American Rivers' figures are speculative,
pending feasibility tests for the proposed project that are just now getting started.
"We have undertaken one of the largest environmental studies programs for a mining project in US to understand and characterize the
environment in and around our deposit area," Heatwole said. "We have invested over $120 million dollars in this effort."
(Related: "Predicting the World’s Next Water Pollution Disaster.")