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Digging Out
A massive mining project that threatens Alaska’s Bristol Bay—and the millions of fish and wildlife that depend on its delicate ecosystem—suffers a major setback.

Conservationists hoping to protect Bristol Bay, home to one of the world’s largest wild salmon runs, got some good—and unexpected—news today: Anglo American, one of the two companies attempting to develop a giant copper and gold mine in the pristine Alaskan wilderness, is pulling out.

The British mining corporation, half of a 50-50 venture with Canada’s Northern Dynasty Minerals, said in a surprise announcement: “Despite our belief that Pebble is a deposit of rare magnitude and quality, we have taken the decision to withdraw.” The move will cost the company $300 million, a penalty it will have to pay its partner.

A draft federal government assessment published last year said that environmental risks from the Pebble project include damage to nearly 100 miles of rivers and 4,300 acres of wetlands. Those waterways annually sustain up to 40 million spawning salmon, a population that supplies close to half of the world’s wild sockeye catch.

Many groups fighting the Pebble project celebrated the news. “The headwaters of the greatest salmon fishery on the planet are no place to gamble on one of the largest mining operations ever conceived,” said Joel Reynolds, western director and a senior attorney with NRDC, which publishes OnEarth and has been a major opponent of the mine. “Northern Dynasty Minerals should realize that, too, and leave this unique part of America alone.”

An association of Bristol Bay native villages, tribes, and the Bristol Bay regional corporation, called Nunamta Aulukestai ("Caretakers of Our Land"), was also happy about the decision. Executive director Kimberly Williams said she “was bouncing and yahooing. It’s a good day for Bristol Bay and for those of us who have said we need to protect salmon, not only for us, but for the future generations.”

Still, Pebble Mine opponents want the Environmental Protection Agency to finalize its report pointing out the environmental risks of the project, something the agency plans to do this year, says spokeswoman Hanady Kader. That document could then be used if other companies propose mines and seek permits in the Bristol Bay watershed.

Opponents hope the loss of Anglo American will convince Northern Dynasty that the mine isn’t viable, but the partnership’s remaining half says it plans to continue pursuing plans for a mine in Bristol Bay. “The Pebble prospect remains an important project for Alaska,” wrote Pebble Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole in an email.

The EPA should protect the bay using the Clean Water Act, so that Northern Dynasty can’t go ahead with its plans alone, says Trout Unlimited’s Tim Bristol, the group’s Alaska program director. Many opponents took it as a promising sign when new EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy visited Bristol Bay last month to hear concerns directly from communities, tribes, and mining officials, and to see where the mine, potentially the largest of its kind in the country, would go.

“It does speak volumes when one of the largest mining companies in the world decides to abandon the project,” Bristol told me. “But that doesn’t mean that Northern Dynasty isn’t out there looking for new investors as we speak.”

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image of Susan Cosier
Susan Cosier is OnEarth's Midwest correspondent. She previously worked at Audubon magazine, and has written for a number of science and environmental publications. She's a graduate of New York University's science journalism program. MORE STORIES ➔