By Josef Burwell
Fish tales are nothing new along the shores of Bristol Bay, Alaska, a pristine and vast place where, if you choose to visit, you must fly on an airplane with an engine that sounds like a large lawnmower. Or you must have the fortune of this location as your birthplace, a geographic coincidence that would very likely tie you to the First Nation people.
Ask anyone in high top rubber boots about the catch today, or the weather tomorrow, or the run last season, and you will certainly hear language that wraps words around fishing for salmon. Elders speak in the Native language; young people translate this treasure for your imagination.
Children draw fish in crayon. Precious, ancient sculptures show the salmon in homage. The Yup’ik, Alutiiq, and the Athchaskan people have been fishing these waters for thousands of years. There are approximately 7500 individuals and 31 tribes who call this home, and deep in their spirit, as well as their DNA, there is the skill and the art of salmon fishing. The nets that are cast from the boats create the fabric of history and the tapestry of families. The lines cast are the golden threads that can be followed back to when ancestors walked a land bridge from the Asian continent.
On a good run, 65.5 million sockeye salmon will make their way north and through the icy waters of Bristol Bay on the Bering Sea. In a six-week annual season, two thirds of these will be caught and sent for processing along the shores in places named Naknek, King Salmon, and Yakutat.
Careful hands will prepare this bounty for shipment to the entire world’s restaurants and grocery stores. For us in North America, 85% of the wild, high quality salmon served in finer restaurants come from these waters. In terms of profits, it’s a $2 billion annual industry.
Aside from the salmon the world enjoys, the fish provides 65% of protein sources for First Americans in Alaska in their diets. This is subsistence nutrition, and a critical link to heritage as well as health. This way of life that has been passed between generations transcends modern industry. Entire families work the salmon season in one way or the other, and it provides life itself. It always has, as certainly as the bay will freeze and thaw.
So in 2005, it was like the earth trembled in Bristol Bay, as it does sometimes, when a company called Northern Dynasty discovered the world’s largest deposit of gold, copper, and molybdenum at the headwaters of the Nurhagak and Kvichak Rivers on Bristol Bay. They announced they would call their project Pebble Mine, and it would create new high paying jobs for every adult in the region. New and better homes could be built with new wealth. Big stores and a variety of shopping would come to the area. The dirt airstrips would be upgraded to paved airports.
There would be a cost, of course, for this new wealth. The earth that rolls toward the bay, the rivers and streams, and the deep frigid water of the bay itself would need to be leveraged. In fact, Pebble Mine would create a toxic lake of mine waste 61 billions gallons in size. It would be six miles in length. This lake would leech its contents according to environmental findings, destroying 80 miles of waters that flowed into the bay, and 3,500 acres of wetlands that nurtured the bay’s borders.
It would, in effect, poison Bristol Bay and create a place where salmon would not swim. They could not be caught, and could not be eaten if they did venture in. With this future, the way of life for thousands of First Nation people would slowly drain from memory. How many generations until the art and skill of salmon fishing was gone? Nobody knew for sure. One? Two? How do you prepare for the end of time?
The earth eventually stopped trembling with this news, and fishing seasons came and went. But the threat did not pass, it was only out of sight. Northern Dynasty Corporation, with its Pebble Mine discovery, did indeed retreat quietly to its Vancouver, Canada home. Its silence was not to be mistaken for lack of activity. It was gathering resources – funding as well as critically needed governmental influence and permits that would need to follow. This would be the calm before the storm.
During these years of clandestine silence by Northern Dynasty on the shores of Bristol Bay, the Wild Salmon Center (WSC), and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) were doing their own work in response. Finally, in 2012, WSC detailed in a report the devastating environmental effects that would befall the area if this toxic mining were to ensue.
They determined that the toxicity to the Bristol Bay Region would be complete, and the mine’s minerals would be viable for a total of approximately only 100 years. For people whose world view spans the existence of humankind, the deal was not just bad, it was unthinkable.
The people of Bristol Bay, NARF, and WSC had the law on their side. Certainly, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with its Clean Water Act, would halt this process forthright. This would be a perfect example of why environmental protections exist in the U.S.
But by now it was 2017, and Andrew Wheeler had been appointed as Administrator of the EPA by Donald Trump. Mr. Wheeler, prior to being placed in the nation’s foremost position as steward of the environment, had served as legal counsel for a coal magnate. This coal company had been fighting against the Obama’s Administration’s protections for climate change, making him the superior pawn for the new administration’s land deals. With Mr. Wheeler guarding the rich natural resources of Alaska, the Pebble Mine permits were filed in this permissive environment with the U.S. government.
There were citizens of the bay who thought this mining project would never happen. It just couldn’t – so let’s get back to work and mind our own business. Then there were some who thought maybe a new job with better pay might not be so bad – maybe we should think about it. But the vast majority of people — 80% by polling — who lived and fished these waters were worried, angry, and ready for a fight.
They had never been attacked before as a people, but if this is what it feels like, then they would be ready. Facts, good communication, plans for a response, whatever it takes to save this home and way of life. And it would take help, from grassroots groups and folks who had already shown up – like NARF and WSC.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers invited the public to speak. Voices were raised in noisy protest, as well as in rational, careful presentation to the board. By now the news of Pebble Mine was being heard far beyond Bristol Bay in national news broadcasts and social media. Many were hearing of this struggle for the first time. The outrage, far and wide, was as real as it was expected.
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The public statements and protests were impactful and resounding in 2017. Surely, now, this outrageous affront would be laid to rest. It took 24 months for the Corps of Engineers to complete their report. And when they did, it summarily failed to hold Northern Dynasty accountable for basic questions of environmental impact to the region. Impunity was in the making by this report.
How could this be? The devastation was palpable among the local people, who were blindsided. It was as if the Corps of Engineers had been at a different set of hearings two years earlier. Permits were granted by the U.S. government to destroy its own land for short term financial gain. It was just a matter of time before the machinery of mining arrived by barge, taking the same icy route from south to north as the salmon run.
No one knew that a small non profit from Washington, DC, called Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) would be present at the meeting between Pebble Mine executives and potential investors for the massive and lucrative project set to proceed. No one knew because they were there undercover. And they were there for one reason: to reveal the link to Alaskan elected officials in duplicitous and unfair practices to secure these mining permits.
They left the meeting with audio tapes that succeeded with ultimate clarity that lies had been told to investors and governmental officials about the future of the mine and its effects, and that state elected leaders knew actual truth more than they had been willing to admit.
The latter were, in fact, complicit in their duplicity and their reluctance to act. None were ever indicted for any actual white collar crime. These hours of audio recordings became known as The Pebble Tapes.
The Pebble Tapes changed everything. Or, it may be said, it made everything the same. Because there are no barges with mining equipment coming north. In their stead, there is salmon every summer on their regular run.
The tapes were critical in getting the mining permits rescinded and the water protections back in place in November 2020. They were the missing link between truth and lies. They were the link between a fair fight and one that was not. Because it never was and never would have been without the light of day. But the tapes would never have been made without the persistent din of protest that endured for a decade.
This battle will become a part of what is passed down to the children as certainly as net mending and fish cleaning – this legend of right and wrong. People who had never been attacked, were threatened with attack. Those who had never fought, prepared for battle. And all they really wanted to do was fish. Sometimes you have to choose your battles.
Josef Burwell, MS, PA-C has worked in many remote Alaskan Native villages as the clinician in the village medical clinic. This includes four Bristol Bay villages during the Pebble Mine years. Josef is also the founder and director of Peacework Medical, a primary care home for new immigrants in Phoenix, AZ who are LGBTQ.