Will Hodson reports on a pristine wilderness sitting on a gold mine.
The winding rivers of Alaska's Bristol Bay witness the largest salmon run on the planet. Those fish form part of an eco-system that supports a glorious range of ancient American fauna: caribou, moose, grizzly bears and, of course, salmon fishermen. Snow-capped mountains provide the stunning backdrop to a fishing way of life that stretches back centuries. Sarah Palin chose to name her daughter, Bristol, after this special place. Yet Alaska's former governor supports a mining project that threatens its very soul.
For Bristol Bay is quite literally a gold-mine. Or a copper-mine, depending on prices in the metal markets. Exploratory missions have discovered deposits worth over $300 billion. As a result, mining giants Northern Dynasty and Anglo American are pressing hard to commence operations at 'Pebble Mine', which would be the largest open pit operation in North America.
These plans have met fierce opposition from a coalition of local residents, environmental campaigners and fishermen worldwide. For Bristol Bay's ore deposits lie directly beneath salmon spawning habitat. Mining will generate as much as 10 billion tons of mine waste, stored at the headwaters of Bristol Bay behind large dams, according to campaign website OurBristolBay.
And dams, as we all know, get busted. Hungary's recent flood of toxic waste should serve as a warning. And Anglo-American have been implicated in waste spills and water pollution before. The company point to the significant experience of their current CEO on matters environmental. Unfortunately, that experience includes serving on BP's ethics, safety and environment board.
'Red Gold', screened in London in November is a beautiful, if quixotic, film that brings Bristol Bay to life. Our evening was all the more intriguing for the attendance, and frequent intervention, of Anglo American's Chief Operating Officer for Pebble Mine.
“I'm sorry. I hope I didn't talk too much. It's important that your voice is heard too.” Bizarrely, those were the words of a subsistence fisherman, addressing Anglo American's COO. Never mind that the mining giant has hired an army of lobbyists to make their voice heard in the corridors of power.
Anglo-American claim that they “will not go where people don't want us.”Campaigners cite a recent survey which found 80% of Bristol Bay area residents oppose the mine. Yet the precautionary principle cuts little ice with Bruce Jenkins – Northern Dynasty's COO and Red Gold’s pantomime villain.
“In my opinion” he began, trying desperately to remember his Oscar Wilde quotebook, “conventional wisdom is always conventional... but not always wise.”
Far wiser, imply the mining companies, is a simple cost-benefit analysis. For them, $300bn of Pebble Mine's metals outweigh any possible costs to Bristol Bay's salmon catch, at just over $100m annually. But how do you weigh in a way of life? The cod-forsaken ghost towns on Canada's east coast have lost far more than their fisheries. Bruce Jenkins in particular should recall Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic – “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Find out more at www.earthworksaction.org and www.ourbristolbay.com
Return to the main jewellery special page