The Midas Touch

An open-pit mine threatens, and beckons, rural Alaskan residents

| May 25, 2006

Work is hard to find in and around Igiugig, Alaska. The small community on the south shore of Iliamna Lake at the mouth of the Kvichak River is hemmed in on all sides by a pristine landscape pocked with lakes, streams, and trees. But there isn't a road in sight. The main source of work in the region is salmon fishing, and the area contains some the most salmon-rich streams and rivers in the world, reports Kenneth Miller for Mother Jones.

Salmon isn't the only natural resource the region boasts, however: Surveys conducted by Northern Dynasty Mines have the area pegged as one of the most gold- and copper-rich spots in North America. And the company wants to dig. The problem is that the mother lode is located just north of Iliamna Lake. The lake's watershed is a salmon-rich area, and residents are worried that Northern Dynasty's promises of environmental safety will quickly be stripped as bare as the open-pit mine it proposes to build.

Experts who are not affiliated with the mining company are skeptical: 'What I can say is that there will be problems. I've never seen a mine that doesn't have them,' claims David Chambers, an engineer and geophysicist who heads the nonprofit Center for Science in Public Participation. Skeptical, too, is Igiugig resident Brian Kraft. The owner of Alaska Sportsman's Lodge, Kraft doesn't generally consider himself an environmentalist. He kick-started the campaign to stop Northern Dynasty, however, after doing some research of his own. From his perspective. the mine 'is just too risky an operation in too sensitive an area,' and so he has been engaged since 2004 in what Miller calls a 'bush-hopping battle for hearts and minds.'

Kraft is running headlong into a Northern Dynasty public relations effort that is in high gear, trying to convince Alaskans that the mine will be safe. Kraft is also coming up against Alaska's reclamation rules. Though they are supposed to cover costs for environmental cleanups if a mining company goes under, the rules are extremely lax, allowing mining companies to substitute a portion of the reclamation bonds with a simple 'corporate guarantee.' And if that were not bleak enough, Miller points out that Alaskan officials have approved almost every mine application that has come before them. The rubber stamp, it seems, is poised to fall.

The region's residents are ambivalent. As the towns debate their position on the mine, many wonder where they and their children will work if it isn't built. Already a handful of towns have passed resolutions supporting the deal, concluding that the salmon and scenery aren't worth the prospective jobs they would lose.

As the debate rages in cash-strapped communities around the region, the outcome remains uncertain -- a comment period opens next year and Northern Dynasty hasn't even applied for a permit yet. Meanwhile, Kraft and his supporters are trying to bolster their cause by looking for economically viable alternatives to mining their land.
-- Nick Rose

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