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Alaska gold mine plans 'too risky'

Plans by a London-based mining company for a massive gold and copper mine in Alaska are “too risky” for the environment, local communities have warned.

Native American and community representatives are in London for Anglo-American’s AGM this week to oppose proposals for a open pit mine in the Bristol Bay watershed which they say threatens the world’s most valuable wild sockeye salmon fishery.

In the latest twist in the debate over the plans, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said it will complete a scientific assessment into how future large-scale development projects may affect water quality and the salmon fishery.

Kimberley Williams, a subsistence fisherwoman and executive director of Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of Bristol Bay native village corporations, said the local community was calling on the EPA to protect the salmon and people of the bay.

Ms Williams said she was in London to warn shareholders and the board against investing in the “risky” project that may never go ahead.

She said the fishery was 100 years old, and had been relied on by indigenous people for subsistence fishing for even longer, and any contamination from the Pebble Mine project would hit the river systems.

“We have so much to lose, it’s too risky, it’s unacceptable to us,” she warned.

Nunamta Aulukestai spokesman Bobby Andrew said the site - which would be North America’s largest open pit mine - would be in a “very eco-sensitive”, as well as seismically-active, region.

“It’s in the wrong place,” he said.

“It’s going to have an impact on the fisheries and all the other renewable resources in the area. The risk is very high of it damaging the fisheries, and it’s not just the fisheries, it’s the tourism industry that relies on the salmon as well.”

Mr Andrew said tourists came to the area for sport angling, hunting and wildlife watching, creating an industry which supported indigenous communities.

And he said his message to the board and shareholders at the AGM would be that there were just too many people in the region who opposed the mine.

He added: “We are doing this for the future generations because we need to make sure they enjoy the same things we have enjoyed for thousands of years.”

Bob Waldrop, director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association which represents 2,000 commercial fishermen, said: “This project will jeopardise the fishery that supplies 50% of the world’s commercial supply of sockeye salmon.

“The fishermen are putting their full weight against the project.”

An Early Day Motion has been tabled in Parliament, by Martin Horwood, which calls on Anglo American to respect the rights of the Bristol Bay residents and forgo development of its Pebble Mine project.

Opponents of the scheme, which could extract billions of tonnes of raw materials in south-west Alaska, have also won the backing of major jewellers who have signed a pledge not to buy gold sourced from the mine.

A spokesman for Anglo American said the project, on land designated by the State of Alaska for mining, was in the exploration phase, and the company was currently undertaking a pre-feasibility study.

“We of course recognise the range of concerns that exist and we encourage all interested parties to participate and to make informed decisions based on the facts and reality, not scaremongering.

“Pebble’s Alaskan management team is talking to local people day in, day out, we are being as open and transparent as possible, making our environmental baseline studies available for independent scientific scrutiny, for example,” he said.

“It is simply premature to make judgments now - there is no mine plan at this stage.

“We do believe that Pebble can be developed in a way that protects the fishery and the onus is on Pebble to prove that and to convince Alaskans.”

And he said the intervention of the EPA at this early stage introduced uncertainty for anyone engaged in economic activity in the area.

“We hope the EPA will refrain from exercising any premature veto over development in Bristol Bay and instead play its well established role during the permitting process,” he added.

Abe Williams, executive director of Nuna Resources, an organisation representing native communities and businesses who support “responsible resource development”, said it was premature to oppose Anglo American’s plans at such an early stage.

And he warned there were those in the region who were scaremongering about the mine before the proposals were developed.

“We feel to come out in opposition or to support it at this time would be pre-emptive and shouldn’t be done until Anglo American come out with the outline of their plans.”

Mr Williams, a commercial fisherman, said there was a need for economic diversity in a region where “jobs are few and far between” and which relied heavily on fishing, and that the mine could provide positive benefits in the form of employment in the area.

“We need opportunities in order to sustain ourselves,” he said.

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