August, 2005: I lay my camera carefully in the tundra, then ran back and flopped on my belly, smiling in a frame of reindeer moss and berries. A helicopter roared past, dangling something from a cable beneath it. It had been three days since I talked to another human, but I was surrounded by the sound of their machines: the constant thwack of rotors, the rumbling of drill rigs, and the roar of small planes.
I tucked the camera into the dry bag that hung around my neck, and headed out into the swampy flat that marked a proposed tailings lake, snapping photos between the squalls of rain. For dozens of square miles around me, the rolling wet tundra had been engulfed by an idea bigger than anything this part of the state had ever seen: the Pebble Mine proposal
I wasn’t really a photographer. The digital SLR camera was brand-new to me only a few months earlier. I took pages of detailed notes in a waterproof journal, but I wasn’t yet a writer. I wasn’t an activist. At the time, I wasn’t even an Alaskan. I was just an ex-grad student – a newly-minted Master of Molecular and Cellular Biology looking for a new path in life.
The New York Times introduced me to Pebble Mine, in a 2005 article that shocked me mostly with what I didn’t know. A giant mine proposal, at the headwaters of a giant salmon fishery – how had I missed such a big issue?
Type “Pebble Mine” into Google today and you’ll be inundated with protest pages and mine company pages, a Wikipedia article, magazine spreads, and news pieces from across the world. There are photos of the prospect, maps galore, photos of people standing with anti-mine banners, photos of drill rigs and photos of salmon… There are movies to watch, a National Geographic piece to read, and a dozen different organizations to join.
In 2005, there was none of that. Pebble Mine’s backers were planning to move to permitting in less than two years. But it seemed like no one had even heard of their plan. Information was difficult to come by. Talking to a director of a prominent conservation group focused on Alaska, I had a hard time convincing him that Pebble actually existed. People cared, but they were few, scattered, and no one was paying them much attention. I couldn’t even find a picture of the place.
So I thought I’d better go take a few.
Three days earlier, I’d walked here alone from Nondalton Village, not sure what I might find. As I walked into the rolling flats of the proposed tailings lake, the wind and rain picked up, whipping the tiny plants into photographic blurs, and spattering water across my lens. The plants hugged the ground in a close-knit mat, surviving by being low and crowded. I followed caribou trails around the brushy tangles, circling Frying Pan Lake, and hiking into the hills on either side of the valley.
I’d just spent the whole day hiking in what could become a giant tailings lake. How could everything around me – literally everything I could see, and everything I walked through all day, disappear into a toxic muck pond?
Becoming an Expert
At the end of 2005, typing “Pebble Mine” into Google would bring you straight to me. I had exactly zero funding, and only crude web skills. Yet somehow, my on-the-ground expedition, photographs, research and writing had turned my page into the dominant source of Pebble Mine info on the web. Requests started flooding in. I heard from people who wanted to use my photos, for everything from posters to magazines to college projects. From people who had questions, who wanted to know what they could do, who wanted to know more…
Who was I to be in this position? I tried to live up to it, painstakingly compiling facts and news articles, attending Northern Dynasty’s meetings in Seattle, and reading long papers about mining issues.
June, 2006: I walked out of Nondalton Village, this time with Hig and my friend Tom in tow. The tundra was painted with the pastel yellows and pinks of tiny wildflowers and tinged with the dull, muted tones of ground that has only recently emerged from the snow.
Even from this closest village, the Pebble valley was still a day and a half’s walk away. As we approached the first of the exploration drill rigs, a trio of caribou trotted past gracefully. A helicopter roared across the dark grey sky, tilting and bouncing in the punishing wind. Trash littered the ground near the trampled and muddy pits of old drill rig sites. I crouched in the grass with my telephoto lens, shooting drill rigs and hoses, and the sludge of rock slurry spilling out over the tundra.
Our mission on this journey was to follow the water. As salmon swim, and as toxins might flow, we spent a month traveling almost 500 miles under our own power, hiking and packrafting the length of both watersheds that connect the Pebble site to Bristol Bay.
My natural shyness had been countered by my bolder companions. As we passed through villages, we began to talk to the locals – about the area, about our trip, about the mine. Each person we spoke to seemed keen to tell us that their entire village was against the mine. They were concerned about the fish, and skeptical of the mining company’s promises.
Here in the Bristol Bay watersheds, everyone knew about Pebble. Everyone had strong opinions. But the rest of the state and the country was just starting to hear of it.
March, 2008: A wind swept our skis down the frozen surface of Sixmile Lake. As we approached Nondalton Village a cluster of low, colorful buildings emerged from the bare birch and shaggy spruce on its shores. The small forms of people appeared on the edge of the ice, approaching to greet us.
“Come in! There’s moose stew and all kinds of food.”
By now, we were returning to familiar ground. We dumped our snowy backpacks in a corner of the Nondalton community center, underneath a poster of my photographs from 2005, and lined up for styrofoam bowls of moose stew.
Anti-mine symbols graced buttons and baseball caps around the room—a neat red slash through the words “Pebble Mine.” “No Pebble Mine” posters covered the walls, the professional work of an Anchorage environmental group intermingled with the colorful hand-drawn efforts of local children. Nunamta Aulukestai, a multi-village organization ?rmly against the mining proposal, had invited a panel of scientists and a state official to talk about the potential impacts of a mine.
Somewhere in the past few years, things had changed. Not just here in the villages, but across the state. More and more, Pebble was even popping up in national and international media. Pebble Mine wasn’t the issue no one had heard of anymore. It was the issue everyone had an opinion on. It was the issue that dominated commercials and ballot initiatives, and seemed better known than any other resource issue in the state.
Tom Crafford (state DNR large mine coordinator), stood up in front of the small crowd in the Nondalton community center, explaining the setup at Red Dog Mine, where a water-treatment plant sits at the outlet of the tailings storage lake, perpetually deacidifying and detoxifying the water before it is released, making it safe for downstream life. When the mine closes, the treatment plant will still be there, treating the water in perpetuity. Other maintenance will need to be performed perpetually as well, keeping the toxic tailings stored in a dammed-off lake, forever sequestered away from water and air. This is what the future of Pebble Mine might look like
Hig broke in with a question: “What exactly do you mean by ‘in perpetuity?’”
“Forever,” Crafford responded.
“When the United States no longer exists, when glaciers roll over the landscape in another ten thousand years, some guy is going to be out there with a bulldozer maintaining the dams around the tailings storage lake? To a geologist, forever doesn’t even make sense!”
Forever is impossible. Whether it happened in one year, ten years, a hundred years, or a thousand, those tailings would eventually pollute the downstream watersheds. Failure was a given. We were just taking bets on when it might happen, and how rapid a failure it might be.
In some ways, we’ve moved away from Pebble Mine in the last few years, broadening our focus to encompass issues that haven’t yet reached everyone’s attention. Against the backdrop of air-supported National Geographic photo trips and constant television ads, my home-grown efforts seemed paltry. The world may not need my photos of Pebble any longer. But there are questions that no one else is asking.
I haven’t been back to Pebble since 2008. But Hig’s visited the area every summer, digging trenches, doing high-resolution GPS surveys, searching for evidence of faults and earthquakes. Even in the 30,000 page baseline data document Pebble Mine recently released, there is only a paltry 3 pages covering seismic risk. And in those 3 pages, there’s not much worth looking at. For other industrial projects in seismically active areas, companies pay for detailed surveys that identify faults and quantify risk. Here, Hig has spent yeas doing the only original science on seismic hazard risk in the Pebble Mine region.
In the last seven years, I’ve watched awareness and outreach on the Pebble Mine issue blossom far beyond what I could have possibly imagined. But that question Hig asked in Nondalton still hangs unanswered. It’s an issue that comes up in large mine projects across the state and the world. As far as I know, there is no solution to the problem of permanent tailings storage other than what we were told by the PR rep for Red Dog mine.