The risky plan to haul minerals from a mine in the Alaska wilderness

A proposed gold and copper mine in Alaska would require a massive transportation corridor that puts a pristine wilderness at risk.

By Douglas Main
photographs by Acacia Johnson
Published 17 Jan 2020, 10:49 GMT
Just north of Amakdedori Beach, cliffs tower over Kamishak Bay, notorious for bad weather and shallow ...
Just north of Amakdedori Beach, cliffs tower over Kamishak Bay, notorious for bad weather and shallow reefs. The beach is the proposed site for Pebble Mine's industrial port, where concentrated minerals would be loaded onto barges and dumped into a ship anchored in the bay.
Photograph by Acacia Johnson, National Geographic

Amakdedori Beach, on the wild western coast of Alaska’s Cook Inlet, is regularly whipped by strong winds, waves, and extreme tides. These forces have amassed an impressive pile of driftwood along the beach, as tall as a cabin in some spots.

But on an August afternoon the weather is sunny and calm enough for Kirk Johnson, an accomplished bush pilot and recently retired dentist, to land his Piper PA-12 on a stretch of tundra a couple of miles from the shore. His daughter, photographer Acacia Johnson, and I exit and secure the plane to an alder stand to prevent the wind from taking hold of it.

Few people have been to remote Amakdedori; its main denizens are bears and wolves, and we thread our way through their tracks on a hike to the shore, past tundra heavy with crowberry and speckled with flowers. On the rocky beach, lapped by the cold Pacific, curious harbour seals approach us. Dominating the horizon 25 miles offshore is Augustine Volcano, which last erupted in 2006.

This land has long been used by the Yupik people for subsistence hunting and fishing, which still takes place. “It's one of the most beautiful places in the world,” Kirk says.

But if a Canadian mining company gets its way, Amakdedori Beach will become home to a large port at the terminus of a transportation corridor for the proposed Pebble Mine, where containers full of concentrated copper and gold will be barged to a tanker anchored in Kamishak Bay.

The mine fight

The proposed Pebble Mine has made international headlines for years, in part due to the heated opposition it has ignited in the Bristol Bay region. The area is home to the largest sockeye salmon fishery left in the world, employing more than 14,000 people and generating around $1.5 billion (£1.1 billion) each year in revenue. Opponents fear that mining the Pebble deposit, which sits at the headwaters of two of the most important salmon-producing rivers in the region, would pollute the waters and destroy the species' habitat. Pebble officials maintain it would not have a significant impact on the fish.

Amakdedori Beach at low tide. Just to the right of the spot where Amakdedori creek flows into Kamishak Bay, Pebble plans to build a port, which would connect to a road. Extreme tides and waves are frequent at Amakdedori, explaining the driftwood berm visible on the shore.
Photograph by Acacia Johnson, National Geographic

But while those potential effects have been widely reported, less attention has been paid to the plan to physically get the material from mine to market. The company, Pebble Partnership, has only one viable path. It involves constructing a large, complex transportation corridor, including a natural gas pipeline and 80 miles of roads, in a largely uninhabited and roadless wilderness area.

It would also necessitate the construction of two ferry terminals, an ice-breaking boat to carry mineral concentrate across Lake Iliamna, Alaska’s largest, and a third port facility at Amakdedori on Cook Inlet.

Opponents argue that the corridor would cause environmental problems—such as disrupting wildlife habitat and migration corridors between two nearby national parks, Katmai and Lake Clark—and present a risk for accidents like spills of toxic metals and other substances such as oil. Copper, for example, is highly toxic to salmon. By increasing accessibility, it could also make it easier to mine in the world’s largest undeveloped copper and gold deposit, which surrounds the Pebble site. Pebble Partnership says impacts on wildlife would be minor, spills could be cleaned up, and long-term effects of the road are not relevant to the current permitting process.

This general area is one of the United State’s richest and most unique remaining stretches of wilderness, home to the best bear-viewing spots on Earth, as well as one of the world’s largest and most pristine habitats for all five Pacific salmon species and other sportfish. Many are afraid that such a corridor would seriously degrade the area. 

“I think it’s vitally important for the planet to have places like this where people can come and experience wilderness,” says Kirk. “Or even just to know such places exist,” says Leslie, his wife. The two were once bear-viewing guides at a camp just south of Amakdedori.

Pebble says it’s confident the plan wouldn’t present major environmental risks. “I think we’ve done everything we can to minimize its impact,” says Tom Collier, CEO of Pebble Limited Partnership. “I pushed this corridor because of my belief that it reduced the environmental impact of what had been proposed earlier.”

“It’s preposterous,” says Joel Reynolds, an attorney specialising in environmental issues at the Natural Resources Defence Council. The corridor “resembles a Rube Goldberg machine, fraught with peril, from start to finish.”

The corridor

If the mine is approved, this is roughly what a day in its life would look like. At the mine, about 180,000 tonnes of rock per day would be blasted out of the ground, crushed, and mixed with various chemicals to create a much smaller amount of concentrated minerals. This concoction, a mixture of crushed rock, concentrated metals, and residual water, would be loaded into containers. The concentrate would be placed on trucks and driven over 29 miles of roads to a port on the northern side of Lake Iliamna, then loaded onto a huge ice-breaking ferry. The ship would make one round trip daily to the port on the other side, 18 miles distant, near the town of Kokhanok, population 170.

There, containers would be unloaded onto trucks travelling 37 miles to a port at Amakdedori, then packed onto sea-going barges bound for a large tanker moored more than 10 miles offshore, into which the minerals would be dumped. The containers would then be returned, empty, to the mine.

The transportation corridor and some of its potential impacts have been described in the Army Corps of Engineers' draft environmental impact statement, which was published in February. A final statement is expected in summer 2020, and the company hopes to soon thereafter receive a permit signifying compliance with the Clean Water Act, the final major approval the company needs to move forward. Various parts of the project would require further permits from the state, a process that would take about three to four years.

However, the Corps' draft statement has been criticized as being scant on details, including on the corridor. “It doesn’t meet standard industry practice,” says Rich Borden, a mining and environmental consultant who worked for Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining companies, for 23 years. That’s shocking, he says, considering, “it’s in the most challenging environmental setting of any mine I’ve ever seen proposed.”

The Department of the Interior, in its official comments on the statement, said, “Based on [several] identified deficiencies, the DEIS is so inadequate that it precludes meaningful analysis.”

The land between Kokhanok and Amakdedori Beach is a vast, undeveloped wilderness. The land is filled with streams and lakes, like this one. Here, Pebble hopes to build a road transporting concentrated metals, which would interfere with wildlife migration, scientists argue.

Photograph by Acacia Johnson, National Geographic

Collier says federal agencies often have harsh criticism early in such processes to ensure their concerns are taken seriously. Having overseen permitting processes before when he worked with the Department of the Interior, Collier says this statement adequately lays out the company’s steps to minimise impacts.

One of the most pointed critiques is that the statement does not address the possibility of a catastrophic release of tailings, a watery mixture of mine waste. Similar mines and tailings dams have given way before. For example, in 2014 the tailings pond at Mount Polley mine in British Columbia breached, sending billions of gallons of toxic wastewater containing lead and arsenic into nearby lakes and streams. Any kind of mass release of tailings from Pebble would be absolutely devastating to the salmon downstream, which form the backbone of the region’s ecology and economy, Reynold says.

However, Collier says the mine plan averts the possibility for such a release because most of the tailings would be placed in a dam that would drain through, after which the water would be treated to reduce levels of toxic metals. That would avoid a build up of water, he says, though some scientific experts, including Borden, have disputed whether the design would work as advertised. The water would also have to be managed in perpetuity, which many view as unrealistic. Acidic, watery waste material will be put in a separate smaller, lined earthen dam, Collier says.

The area is also geologically active, and geologist Bretwood Higman says Pebble has done “virtually nothing” to document the faults in the area. The nearby, little-studied Lake Clark Fault could run near or even under the project site, and could plausibly produce large earthquakes over the long-term, he added in comments on the impact statement. Those “tailings will continue to pose a danger to downstream waterways long after mining is complete. It is unacceptable to permit any facility that will require any form of perpetual maintenance, including treatment of water, or maintenance of dams,” he says.

The route

While the planned size of the mine is scaled down from failed proposals of the past, the corridor is more ambitious, because the company will not be able to pursue the more direct route, along the north of Lake Iliamna. In the past few years the town of Pedro Bay, which would have to consent to such a corridor, has decisively turned against the project, says Jerry Jacques, a bear-viewing company owner and bush pilot who was based in the town for many years. Townspeople fear that the corridor and mine would “destroy their way of life,” he says.

Likewise, the Igiugig Native Corporation, which owns the development rights to Diamond Point, the previously-preferred port location, has decided not to allow Pebble to proceed. “They did approach us for a port, but our council said no,” says AlexAnna Salmon, president of the village council of Igiugig, population 69, at the western edge of Lake Iliamna, which controls the corporation.

At the same time, the Alaska Peninsula Corporation has tentatively agreed to give Pebble the rights to construct a corridor along its land, including much of the stretch between Kokhanok and Amakdedori. Vice President Brad Angasan says the corporation’s board members have been “forced” into this, due to a lack of jobs and business opportunities, as well as a falling population in the area.

Unlike most here, who seem to have a strong position one way or the other, Angasan is more on the fence. “If Pebble passes, fantastic. If not, equally fantastic.” He says he hopes—and is choosing to have faith—that the federal government and the state will help prevent significant negative impacts from the project.

Across the water

Environmentalists and locals are worried that spills could happen on the ferry across Lake Iliamna, the world’s single largest contiguous nursery for red salmon and home to a rare population of freshwater seals. Like Amakdedori, high winds roar across the lake and it often freezes in the winter, potentially make a crossing difficult. There’s also a risk for accidents along the roads, certain to become icy during much of the year. The trucks and boats will be hauling highly concentrated metals, like copper, which is toxic to salmon, as well as other unknown chemicals used in the mining process, fuel, and the like.

Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) school near a bridge at Brooks Camp, in Katmai National Park. The region is the world’s largest nursery for these salmon, and it forms the basis of the area’s ecology and economy. It remains relatively pristine—for now.
Photograph by Acacia Johnson, National Geographic

The company says the steel containers will be sealed, and use a state-of-the art design that “minimises the potential for spills during concentrate transportation,” says Mike Heatwole, Pebble vice president of public affairs. They’ll only be opened once aboard the bulk carrier in Cook Inlet, he adds.

But Dennis McLerran, former head of EPA Region 10, which includes Alaska, says, “Even with modern mining technology, accidents and spills happen.”

“Things can always breach, depending on the accident scenario,” Borden says.

Heatwole insists that the company is doing “everything we can to ensure safe and environmentally responsible operations,” and that “we will have contingencies in place should accidents happen.”

“Shipping accidents and oil spills are possible here,” on Lake Iliamna, Higman says, "but [thorough] cleanup would be nearly impossible, given the necessity of bringing resources over land or in an airplane.”

On the road

Further south, the road between Kokhanok and Amakdedori Beach would carry an average of 35 trucks per day, with one passing every 18 minutes.

That could interfere with subsistence activities, says Christina Salmon, AlexAnna’s sister, also an Igiugig Village Council board member. “We don’t feel they have the right to build a road through our traditional hunting and fishing grounds.”

But as Collier reiterates, development rights to much of the land are controlled by the cooperative Alaska Peninsula Corporation.

The road would pass through an important wildlife corridor between Katmai National Park in the south and Lake Clark National Park in the north. Dave Crowley, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who oversees the region, says this area is prime bear-denning territory.

Every summer, millions of people around the world watch a webcam broadcasting from Brooks Falls, in Katmai, where dozens of brown bears congregate. The peninsula itself is home to around 10,000 brown bears, the densest grouping of bears on Earth.

Bear researchers fear a road could disrupt the movement of the animals, especially those that show up at McNeil River Falls 13 miles south of Amakdedori, widely considered to be one of the best bear-viewing spots in the world. The road would come within less than a mile of the McNeil River State Game Refuge at its closest. Bears range many miles throughout the course of their lives. They can cover 20 miles in a week, and straight-line travels of 80 miles or more over the course of a year are not uncommon, says Grant Hilderbrand, a large-mammal ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who has studied bears for 25 years.

The pristine coastline of Lake Iliamna, Alaska's largest lake, which Pebble’s proposed ferry would cross. At over a thousand square miles, this wild ecosystem is home to numerous tribal groups and one of the world's only freshwater seal species. It’s the largest contiguous nursery for red salmon in the world.
Photograph by Acacia Johnson, National Geographic

They’re also worried that interactions with bears could change their nature, teaching the animals to associate people with food. Heatwole says Pebble is actively working with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to address the concerns, to prevent road collisions and the bears from getting access to food.

This section of road passes many streams—more than 200, according to Rachel James, an organiser with the environmental group Salmon State who walked the route of the proposed corridor last fall between Amakdedori and Kokhanok, taking pictures and notes on her travels.

“I cannot emphasise enough how many streams it crosses,” James says. “The impacts to salmon would be incredible. Everywhere you step it’s headwater streams, salmon-bearing streams.”

A flight over the proposed route reveals that it would be a massive undertaking. The land is wet, rocky, and mostly uninhabited, except for isolated cabins and the towns of Kokhanok, on the south side of the lake, and Newhalen and Iliamna on the north side, with a combined population of under 300.

Borden says the corridor would add to costs that already make the project unfeasible, suggesting that the company would have to enlarge the mine to be profitable. Pebble has admitted that they would like to—the current plan is to leave more than 80 percent of the ore in the ground—but says they’d have to go through a whole new permitting process if that were to take place.

The last time the company provided estimates for the costs of infrastructure was in 2011 with the release of the Wardrop Report. At that time, the company suggested that a different version of the infrastructure corridor would cost around $700 million (£596 million) in today’s money to construct, with annual transportation costs of $50 million (£42 million) per year, Borden says.

Pebble has not released an economic feasibility study, or an estimate for how much the corridor would cost.

Another worry is that a transportation corridor would open up the whole region to mining; the mineral vein in the Pebble deposit is part of is the largest such deposit in the world. The land is riddled with mining claims, which are worth very little if the material cannot be physically removed, Reynolds says.

“If you were to develop all of those (additional claims), the risk would expand exponentially,” says Dennis McLerran.

He oversaw EPA Region 10 when the department issued a 2014 ruling that effectively halted Pebble’s continuation, because the agency concluded the project presented an unacceptable level of risk to salmon in the Bristol Bay watershed. That ruling was overturned by the EPA in July, which was announced internally shortly after President Trump met with governor Mike Dunleavy, who supports the project.

McLerran fears that a corridor could open the land to subsequent mining and developments that could cause “death by a thousand cuts,” as has happened in other formerly robust salmon fisheries in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

“Yes we need mining and mining has hazards, but you pick your locations where you decide the risk is acceptable,” McLerran says. “This is one of those locations where we shouldn’t be taking that risk with what we know.”

The Pebble permitting process has so far had its fair share of oversights, says attorney Roger Flynn, part of a larger pattern.

“Like other large mining projects, such as the Rosemont open-pit copper mine in Arizona, the Corps continues to take a ‘blinders on’ approach to its review of the Pebble Project, and its massive potential impacts to the Alaskan environment,” says Flynn, director of the Western Mining Action Project, a legal centre focused on mining in the western states, and an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado School of Law.

The beach

Back at Amakdedori, Kirk Johnson recalls one sunny day in the 1980s when, as a bear guide, he anchored a boat at the beach. After leaving to explore nearby, a storm blew up without warning, with winds going from virtually nonexistent to 80 miles per hour in 20 minutes, he says. Before he could get back to the vessel, the storm wrecked it on the shore.

Amakdedori’s location exposes it to so-called gap winds, where pressure differentials on either side of the Aleutian Range can cause fierce gales, especially in winter.

At the port, barges would bring material to and from tankers anchored in Kamishak Bay, which has a series of reefs and shallows. Bob Shavelson, who runs the environmental organisation Cook Inletkeeper, says, “It’s one of the nastiest places for running a boat. It’s one of the most unforgiving navigational settings in the world.”

Shavelson and others worry that high winds, waves, and extreme tides, which can fluctuate as much as 30 feet, could cause barges to run aground in the reef-ridden bay.

“It’s a lousy, awful place to put a port,” says Rick Halford, a long-time Republican politician and former state Senate president who has become an open critic of the mine. “It won’t work.”

Pebble strenuously disagrees, pointing out that it has an alternative location for loading tankers, “should the weather prevent loading at our primary site,” Heatwole says, although both are 12 miles or more from the port site. “Should operations preclude loading at both sites we have sufficient storage space and containers in the project plan to account for weather disruptions.”

“It’s going to work,” Collier says. “Why would it not work?”

Abe Williams, a commercial fisherman who’s also Pebble’s director of regional affairs, makes a comparison to Saint Paul Island, in the middle of the Bering Sea, where crab boats regularly dock even in extreme weather and cold. If it can be done there, it can be done here, he says. But accidents at Saint Paul are not unheard of, and those boats don’t carry large quantities of potentially toxic material in a rich wilderness.

“The notion that weather and topography could hinder your ability to design something that would accommodate your needs is, to me, absurd,” he says.

The Johnsons disagree. “A mine here just doesn’t make sense,” says Leslie.

“We need to protect the planet from further loss of beautiful places,” Kirk says.

Editor's note: Reporting for this story was made possible by a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

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