Pits in Crown Jewels

by Ted Williams
Reprinted courtesy of Ted Williams and Fly, Rod and Reel

It was a day of superlatives in a place of superlatives. I had thought I threw a long line until I watched the guy fishing with me – Steve Rajeff, who can cast farther than any other man on the planet. Together we eased down the clean gravel of the river that sustains the world's biggest salmon runs – the Kvichak, 300 hundred yards from where it collects water from the biggest lake in Alaska. Now, in late September, the giant rainbows of Lake Iliamna were dropping down to snark the last eggs from the last moribund pink salmon. From 20 feet they'd chase down the Globugs Steve had tied that morning. We didn't have anything with which to weigh the fish that fried my reel, but it dwarfed the 12-pound silver I'd caught two days earlier. Rajeff's photo of it hangs on my office wall. Anglers who haven't fished the Kvichak won't believe me when I tell them it's not a steelhead.

That's how I got hooked on the Bristol Bay area of southwest Alaska. No place on earth is wilder or more beautiful or offers finer salmonid fishing. In the Kvichak, for example, you can catch all five Pacific salmon, rainbows, dollies, char and grayling. The rivers, lakes, mountains, valleys, tundra and forests of Bristol Bay are aptly called "America's crown jewels." I cannot get enough of them. But the day may not be far off when you and I will get no more because, if a small Canadian mining company with no track record and backed by Middle Eastern money of unknown origin gets its way, they will be ruined.

Some of the fish and wildlife will, of course, survive. Many of the topographical features will remain intact. But the essence and magic of the place will be destroyed utterly and irrevocably. The Bristol Bay area will no longer be wild and remote. It will become a populated, easily accessed, industrial-waste storage facility.

Even if the Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Mines made a habit of keeping its word, its copious promises would mean nothing. This is because its modus operandi is to find and stake deposits, then hawk them to larger companies who do whatever they please. Having never developed a mine, Northern Dynasty proposes to strip-mine what it describes as the nation's largest gold deposit and second-largest copper deposit near Upper Talarik Creek and the lower Koktuli River in the Nushagak and Kvichak River drainages, just south of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve and 15 miles northwest of Lake Iliamna.

In addition to cyanide, with which gold is extracted from ore, the operation would release sulfuric acid, arsenic, lead, cadmium, zinc, mercury and sundry other toxins known to kill fish and wildlife, cause cancer and destroy nerve tissue. A witch's brew of these and other poisons would be held in a 20-square-mile lagoon consisting of former wild-salmonid habitat in what is called the "Ring of Fire," a volatile seismic zone beset by major earthquakes (including one in the spring of 2005) at the base of Mt. Iliamna, an active volcano, and flanked by two other active volcanoes. In fact, all the past and present volcanism make the site one of the world's richest sulfide mineralization areas, meaning that production of acids and toxic heavy metals would be way higher than at other strip mines.

When the toxic-waste lagoons downslope from hard-rock mines fail, results are always catastrophic. So great is the threat to the Bristol Bay area that the DC-based environmental group American Rivers took the unusual step of including this land of many waters on its 2006 list of the nation's 10 most endangered "rivers."