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Proposed Mining Operation in Bristol Bay Puts Wildlife and People at Risk

Bristol Bay is one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world and the source of the world’s largest wild salmon fishery. The Pebble Mine deposit is located at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed, beneath Bristol Bay’s important salmon spawning streams.

If it is developed, Pebble Mine would be the largest open pit mine in North America, if not the world. Several billion tons of waste rock would be held back from the headwaters of Bristol Bay by massive dams up to 700 feet high. The proposed mine site is also in an active earthquake zone.

Tom Tilden, a Yup’ik Eskimo, and his family have been fishing in Bristol Bay, Alaska, for generations. As Chief of the Curyung Tribe of Dillingham, Alaska, Tilden is passionate about protecting Bristol Bay. He is also dedicated to educating people around the world about the threat of the proposed Pebble Mine. Carin Stephens of WWF’s Arctic office, interviewed Tilden about his work.

What is special about the proposed Pebble Mine site?

TT: The area is not just habitat for tens of millions of spawning and juvenile salmon, but also a huge caribou migratory route. When the Pebble Mine exploratory work occurred, the mining operations actually altered the route of the caribou migration, already affecting Bristol Bay’s wildlife before any large operations occur.

This area in Bristol Bay has always been recognized as a sensitive area by the Alaska Native people. It has always been jointly used by the Athabascan Indians as well as the Yup’ik Eskimos. They both shared that area and recognize how important it is.

How do people in Bristol Bay feel about the mine?

TT:: A recent survey by the Bristol Bay Native Corporation shows that about 80 percent of Bristol Bay locals oppose the mine. Many local tribes, communities and regional organizations such as the Bristol Bay Native Corporation passed resolutions against Pebble. The local county-like government where the Pebble deposit is situated, the Lake and Peninsula Borough, outlawed development like Pebble after voters approved a citizen’s initiative called “Save Our Salmon.”

Opposition is growing as people are more educated about the issue. As time goes by and more is revealed, there will be even greater opposition to it because of the sensitivity of the area. This is important, because huge mining corporations like Anglo-American, which owns half of the Pebble Partnership, promised that they wouldn’t go where communities are against them. They should keep their promise.

As part of the opposition to the mine, what are you doing?

TT: I am educating people and urging them to take action to help stop the mine. I first had to educate myself about mining. When the concept of the Pebble mine and the open pit model was described to my neighbors and I in the Bay—how the miners would use huge amounts of cyanide and other toxic chemicals to leach gold out of the rock—it changed my whole perspective of what a mine was. I started asking the hard questions. I found out that yes, it will contaminate the water.

You had the opportunity to talk to the corporate leaders of Anglo-American, the biggest partner in the Pebble Mine initiative. What did you say to them?

TT: I told them that this proposed mine is in direct conflict with our way of life here. The salmon spawning beds play a significant role in my life as a commercial fisherman and an Alaska Native subsistence user. This wouldn’t just impact me, but my neighbors and neighboring communities as well.

Fishing is who we are. It will continue to be who we are. The importance of salmon in our life is shown not just in our livelihoods, but in our art. You’ll see salmon in our art, schools, music, and dance. We want that to continue because that is who we are.

What is your vision for Bristol Bay? What do you see for your grandkids?

TT: The number one thing I hear is that people want to stay here. We want to live here and we want an economy here. We want an economy based on sustainability and renewable resources, and we don’t want our renewable resources to be jeopardized in any way.

Pebble is neither sustainable nor renewable. It would last just a few decades and leave its toxic pollution forever. We believe we can build a renewable, sustainable economy without having to resort to a finite, damaging resource like Pebble.