MAC: Mines and Communities

Northern Dynasty Promises To Replace Fish Lost To Mining

Published by MAC on 2006-03-26
Source: Anchorage Daily News

Northern Dynasty promises to replace fish lost to mining

PAULA DOBBYN, Anchorage Daily News

26th March 2006

Canadian developers hoping to turn the giant Pebble gold and copper deposit in Southwest Alaska into one of the world's largest mines say they will follow a "no net loss" policy for fish, a goal that has some in the salmon-rich region wondering what it means and whether it will work.

The policy means that if Pebble eventually becomes a mine, and if fish populations are harmed, the developers will replace them so that harvest levels -- whether commercial, sport or subsistence -- stay the same, said Bruce Jenkins, chief operating officer for Northern Dynasty Minerals of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Much is at stake because of Pebble's location. The giant deposit is located in the headwaters of two river systems that feed Bristol Bay, home to five species of Pacific salmon, including the world's largest sockeye salmon run.

Exactly how the company will accomplish no net loss remains to be seen, because designs and engineering for the proposed mine are under development, and a bevy of environmental studies the company commissioned are continuing. Northern Dynasty says it will not apply for permits until late next year and, assuming the project goes forward, production would begin no earlier than 2011.

But Jenkins said fish replacement could involve enhancing streams, capturing and relocating fish, or removing beaver dams, blocked culverts or other obstacles to boost reproduction.

How much habitat would need to be replaced is not known but a couple of things are certain in these early days of Pebble development, he said.

"You can't build a major project with zero impact, but you can offset it," Jenkins said.

The other certainty is that any fish stocks the company creates will be wild, not farmed, he said.

"It doesn't mean hatchery fish or aquaculture," he said.

State regulators are taking a wait-and-see approach. But some fishery experts reject the notion that Northern Dynasty can achieve its goals, in part because salmon have evolved for centuries to adapt to specific stream conditions. They say trying to mimic the handiwork of nature is nearly impossible.

"The idea that you can create habitat, it just doesn't have a sound scientific basis," said Daniel Schindler, an assistant professor at the University of Washington's School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. Schindler's research focuses almost exclusively on Bristol Bay salmon.

Jim Buell, a fisheries consultant for Northern Dynasty, acknowledges that debate churns over the effectiveness of habitat enhancement for salmon.

"Some projects are quite successful and some are not," he said.

But Buell said he thinks it's feasible at Pebble and that in some places fish production can actually be boosted.

"It's not about no net loss. It's about net gain."


The policy Northern Dynasty pledges to follow is grounded in Canada's federal fishery regulations.

The parliament in Ottawa passed measures for protecting fish habitat throughout Canada in 1986. The no-net-loss policy says the existing productive capacity of Canada's rivers, lakes and streams should remain intact.

Where development projects such as mines, highways and oil and gas exploration might harm habitat, the guiding principle should be no net loss. That means that the Fisheries and Oceans department strives to balance habitat loss with habitat replacement on a project-to-project basis.

"It's worked well," said Patrice LeBlanc, director of habitat protection and sustainable development for Fisheries and Oceans. "The no-net-loss principle is integral to the department's policy for the management of fish."

"If there is any damage to fish habitat, we require that it be offset," LeBlanc said.

There are a variety of strategies. They include creating similar habitat conditions nearby, such as building a wetland, to enhancing a fish-producing river elsewhere by adding woody debris or removing obstacles. The policy also might simply mean paying a lump sum to the government to compensate for the fish and habitat loss.

Mining watchdogs in Canada say the policy looks good on paper but it lacks teeth, doesn't always work biologically and is often overlooked.

Whether the no-net-loss objective has been met in Canada is anyone's guess, said Joan Kuyek, national coordinator for MiningWatch Canada, which published a report on the issue last year.

"Nobody knows because they haven't found out. They haven't done the studies," Kuyek said. "When we talked to people at Fisheries and Oceans, they had no idea if they achieved it."

The report criticized the government for an "absence of a scientific basis for decision-making, the lack of monitoring or follow-up, and a disregard for public participation."

LeBlanc disagrees with Kuyek and the report's conclusions, although he acknowledges that more studies on the effectiveness of no net loss would help. But even then, he said, the critics would not be satisfied.

"Even if we doubled it, people would say it's not enough."


Pebble straddles the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers, some of the world's most prolific producers of sockeye and king salmon. The Kvichak and the Nushagak are two of seven rivers draining into Bristol Bay.

Over the last century, the Kvichak has produced more than a third of Bristol Bay's sockeye harvest, said Schindler. The Nushagak is the biggest king producer.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that last year's Bristol Bay commercial salmon catch netted fishermen $93 million.

The deposit is also smack inside a region sprinkled with luxury sportfishing lodges where people of sufficient wealth fly in from around the world to catch trophy rainbow trout and salmon.

Because of what's at stake with the Bristol Bay watershed, Northern Dynasty's no-net-loss policy has caught the interest of people following the possible development of Pebble. One major question is whether prime fish habitat can really be replaced through engineering.

It depends, state officials say, on many factors.

"Whether you can accomplish it on any individual project depends a lot on what type of project you have, the size, the location," said Al Ott, operations manager of the state Department of Natural Resources' Office of Habitat Management and Permitting.

Other factors include the geochemistry of the deposit, local hydrology and how the project is designed and engineered.

Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, he said.

One place where post-mining habitat rehabilitation panned out well is at Fort Knox, a large gold mine near Fairbanks, Ott said.

Fort Knox, which produced 324,000 ounces of gold in 2005, uses Fish Creek Valley as a water source. That area was damaged during years of placer mining, and resident fish were killed. But when Fort Knox was built in the 1990s, the mining company dammed Fish Creek and flooded the area. Arctic grayling and burbot recolonized and are now abundant, Ott said. The valley will become a public recreation area after mining ends.

The company building Kensington, a gold mine north of Juneau now under construction, plans to put its waste rock in a nearby lake. The Dolly Varden char and three-spine stickleback in the lake will die.

But Pete McGee, an engineer with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said after mining is over, the fish will return.

"When they quit dumping tailings in there, we expect it to be fine fish habitat," McGee said.

Environmentalists, who sued over the issue, have doubts. They cite a lack of scientific evidence and describe the lake as a "sacrifice zone" that may never recover.

"We're not convinced," said Kat Hall, mining coordinator for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.

Schindler, the University of Washington fisheries professor, said the science around creating fish habitat is improving but is "still pretty lame."

"The idea that you can engineer habitat, in general it's a concept that we generally fail to accomplish."

Streams, lakes and rivers have myriad natural characteristics that fish require, he said. Among other things, he said, engineers have a hard time mimicking natural occurrences, such as storms or flooding.

"You can carve a ditch in the earth and put water in it and call it a stream. Whether it functions appropriately as a natural stream" is another question, Schindler said.

Perhaps, but many strategies have successfully developed over the decades to achieve no-net-loss of fish, Buell said.

"Habitats can be manipulated to improve their productive capacity," he said.

Lakes and ponds with no fish, for example, can be connected to rivers or streams that do support aquatic life, and as a result, they can become fish-bearing water bodies, Buell said.

In other cases, streams with few pools and eddies, suitable for fish-rearing, can be enhanced by adding boulders or woody debris, such as logs or tree limbs, that trap currents and create calm waters.

After consulting with state fish biologists and people who live in the Pebble region, Buell said he has identified several places that could benefit from habitat restoration and enhancement. He declined to name them, saying it's premature.

An admirable goal

Ralph Andersen, chief executive of Bristol Bay Native Association, called Northern Dynasty's no-net-loss pledge an "admirable goal."

But Andersen, who heads the region's largest community and social-services agency for Natives, said it's too early to say whether it's doable.

"Nothing has happened yet. No holes have been dug in the ground," Andersen said. "If I saw some definite plans for the design and engineering and waste-disposal plans, then I would be in a better position to answer. But right now it's all ideology and concept."

Andersen noted that Northern Dynasty, a junior mining company, has yet to bring on a major investor who will pay the estimated $1.5 billion cost of developing Pebble. Whether the eventual developer adheres to Northern Dynasty's no-net-loss policy is unknown.

Even if Pebble never gets built, other mining companies and prospectors have staked at least a thousand acres near the deposit for potential mining. So the questions surrounding how to balance fish protection with mineral extraction are not likely to go away.

"Does Pebble set a precedent that will encourage more development that will eventually compromise the natural resources of the area?" Schindler asked.

It doesn't have to, project supporters say.

The mayor of the Lake and Peninsula Borough, the local government nearest Pebble, told state lawmakers in a hearing last month that resource development and environmental protection can co-exist if done right. The borough assembly last month also voted unanimously against a legislative resolution calling for more state oversight of the Pebble project.

The resolution died in the Legislature after two hearings in the House Resources Committee.

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