Proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay Alaska: Interview with filmmaker Travis Rummel from Felt Soul Media

By Page on November 23, 2007 at 7:39 pm

Bristol Bay sockeye salmon…. Photo by Ben Knight

Northern Dynasty Mines proposes to build North America’s largest open-pit gold and copper mine at the headwaters of two of the most valued river drainages in Alaska, the Mulchatna/Nushagak River drainage and the Newhalen/Kvichak drainage. The proposed Pebble Mine is situated in Bristol Bay Alaska, an area known for its pristine watersheds and sockeye salmon runs. Filmmakers Travis Rummel & Ben Knight from Felt Soul Media spent the summer in Bristol Bay shooting their latest project Red Gold. Beyond documenting the incredible beauty of Bristol Bay, Red Gold poses the question:

which is a more valuable resource: the renewable and sustainable runs of salmon that have enriched fisherman (sport, commercial, and subsistence) or the 90 million ounces of gold that lie in the headwaters of the region.

Below is an interview with Travis about Red Gold and what you can do if you want to be more involved in the issues.

The Veins of Bristol Bay…Photo by Ben Knight

Why did you choose to make a film about Pebble Mine?

I had never witnessed a mass migration before. This seemed like an amazing opportunity to document a mass migration that is still incredibly healthy and bountiful before the possibility of it being detrimentally impacted through industrialization.

Bristol Bay, AK is still extremely pristine, remaining roadless with more bears than people. The sockeye salmon returns are legendary even for Alaska and contribute to about 25% of the global harvest of wild salmon. This year about 29 million fish were harvested. The fishery is sustainable and is managed for 50% escapement rates to make sure there will be more fish for the future.

The Pebble Mine threatens this sustainable resource through a proposed copper/gold/molybdenum mine at the headwaters of the regions two most productive rivers – the Nushagak and the Kvichak rivers. It is also a mere 19 miles from Alaska’s largest lake – Lake Iliamna which is home to one of the only populations of fresh waters seals in the world. The reserve could be the largest copper sulfite deposit ever discovered and is currently estimated to be worth over 300 billion dollars.

The mine will most likely be a combination of open pit style mine and under ground mine. The development of the mine would mean a 100 mile road being built and influx of 2000 workers for construction to be followed by roughly1000 workers to operate the mine. The entire population of Bristol Bay is just 8000.

Photo by Ben Knight

If Pebble Mine happens, what are the long-term effects to the environment & the fishing community?

Aside from the influx of workers from out of the area, open pit mining is notorious for contaminating watersheds. This is a wetlands with very complex hydrology. The mine site could not be in a worse location as it straddles two watersheds, each huge producers of all 5 species of pacific salmon. The fishery supports commercial, sport (fly fishing, spin fishing) and subsistence fishing (for the last 6000+ years). The commercial fishery is based on water purity and is marketed as coming from the pristine waters of Alaska. If there ever was a leak or spill at Pebble Mine, it could destroy the reputation of the entire state/region. For example, the Valdez oil spill drastically affected the Bristol Bay’s fishery’s market despite it being over 1000 mile from the actual fishery. The sport fishery is huge in the area and supports over a hundred lodges where people spend upwards of $8000 a week to fish for salmon and trout. The subsistence link is perhaps the most crucial as many yupik, and athabasacans (two of Alaska’s Native groups) still heavily rely on the harvesting of salmon for the majority of their annual protein as well as it remaining one of their last intact cultural pillars.

Is just the fishing industry lucrative enough to sustain the local economy?

Traditionally, the fishery has supported the people of Bristol Bay and the seasonal fishermen from beyond. In the 1990’s farmed salmon drove the price of wild salmon to extremely low prices. The market has slowly recovered as people have begun to recognize the inherent differences between wild and farmed fish. The disparity here is that the mine site is removed from the actual commercial fishery by about 60 miles. The argument is that the locals of Lake Iliamna have been forced out of the fishery through the permit process and do not directly benefit from the commercial fishery as they could from the mine. The only real argument for the mine going forward is job creation. This is a bit absurd as the jobs to locals will be minimal as many lack any formal training in mining/construction and with an immediate population of 200 people living in Iliamna the number that would actually benefit is very low. Most likely, Pebble Mine would not employ more than a couple of hundred locals during the construction phase and then that number would probably become lower once the mine is actually operational. Commercial fishing employs around 8,000 people seasonally with a majority being directly from the area.

Nancy Delkiette hangs her fish. Photo by Lauren Oakes.

Can the mine be constructed in a way that will not be so destructive to the community & the environment?

Open pit mining is the largest polluter in the US according the EPA. Northern Dynasty is still coming up with the construction plans for the site, so it is not really known how the minerals will be extracted. Most likely it will be both an open pit and hard rock mine. The problem with the open pit and hard rock is containing the tailings and waste rock for perpetuity. Mining doesn’t have the best record for this.

Has there been any money set aside for clean-up plans?

Yes, they have to post a bond to maintain the permit that is reviewed every 5 years. Traditionally though this has not been sufficient for a complete closure and restoration. It is difficult to plan for perpetuity as well.

Alaskan Natives show their support of the anti-Pebble Mine movement at the Dillingham rally. Photo by Ben Knight

When making the film what was the reaction from the community?

The Pebble Mine is a very decisive issue in the communities of Bristol Bay. Our experience was that the vast majority of those we encountered were actively opposed to the mine. The people in support were generally only in support of the mine going through if it could be guaranteed that there would not be any negative environmental impacts.

jackfishon-11.jpgPhoto by Travis Rummel

If people want to become involved in the issue-what can they do?

The scary thing is that is essentially a state of Alaska issue. The site is wholly on state land and then it will come down to the state legislation and governor deciding what is more important – the one time gain from the mine or the sustainable fishery.

To learn more about Red Gold & Felt Soul Media visit: