Jeweler Opposition to Bristol Bay Gold Grows

Jeweler Opposition to Bristol Bay Gold Grows

Image CC licensed by Flickr user NPCA Photos

More than 50 jewelers, including Tiffany & Co., Zale Corp., and Jostens, have now signed on to a campaign launched in 2008 to boycott gold from a controversial mining project in Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed.

The site of the Pebble Mine (pictured left) is home to one of the world's largest mineralized systems, containing an estimated 80.6 billion pounds of copper and nearly 107.4 million ounces of gold, in addition to silver and other precious metals.

Unfortunately, Bristol Bay is also home to the world's largest wild sockeye salmon fishery. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said last week it would begin a scientific review of the watershed to assess how large-scale development would impact water quality and the fishery.

Jewelers have been lining up against the project since the Bristol Bay Protection Pledge was launched in 2008, growing from five to 54, with jewelers' aggregate annual sales now topping $5.75 billion. The group publicizes the campaign around Valentine's Day because jewelery demand accounts for the vast majority mined gold production.

"It's a precedent-setting moment for the industry because we have never seen this number of jewelers take this position collectively around a place," said Bonnie Gestring, Northwest Circuit Rider at Earthworks, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that bills itself as a protector of communities and the environment from the impacts of mineral development.

The Bristol Bay protection pledge grew out of the No Dirty Gold campaign launched by Earthworks and Oxfam America in 2004. Jewelers were invited to endorse the campaign's Golden Rules, a set of criteria for responsible mining practices. More than 70 companies have lent their support for the Golden Rules.

Gestring called the Pebble deposit the largest undeveloped gold deposit in the world. High gold prices, now commanding more than $1,300 an ounce, have led to a boom in production around the U.S., including California, where mining companies are giving abandoned mines a second look. The number of mining claims staked in the Bristol Bay area has grown significantly.

But mining brings with it a lot of toxic waste, she said, making the sensitive nature of the Bristol Bay inappropriate for an open-pit mine that will be North America's largest. The ore is rich in sulphides, which can react with air and water to create sulfuric acid.

"The deposit is where it is," Gestring said. "You can't move the deposit. It's just in the wrong place, right at the headwaters of Bristol Bay where salmon go to spawn."

The project has been years in the making, but still hasn't reached the permitting stage and likely won't this year, according to John Shively, CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership. Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. and Anglo American Plc. created the Pebble Partnership to permit, construct and operate the Pebble Mine. If events go the company's way, the mine could be operational by the end of the decade.

In an interview, Shively noted the unusual nature of the EPA decision to conduct the scientific review of the watershed before the company has applied for a 404 permit, which covers the discharge of dredged or excavated materials in U.S. waters. Commercial fishermen and indigenous villages asked the EPA to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to veto the mine's 404 permit, which is usually administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"They've never done one of those without the project being in permitting," Shively said.

The Pebble Partnership has spent more than $100 million studying the Bristol Bay watershed for the project and will release environmental baseline data in the Spring for a region that serves several interests, ranging from commercial fishing to indigenous tribes.

"You have an existing resource, people that make a living off the resource, and native people who get their subsistence from the resource," Shively said. "They're concerned. They ought to be."

Shively contends that modern technology would enable the mine to co-exist with the surrounding fisheries. A large dam with a membrane would need to be built to contain the tailings, or waste, he said, although critics have raised concerns about seismic activity in the area; product-related wastewater may be treated to meet high water quality standards set by the state.

"It would have the highest standard of any mine that has ever been constructed because of the place it is in," he said.

Shively said he's written some of the jewelers that have taken the Bristol Bay Protection Pledge, with little response. He questioned the motivations of the jewelers joining the campaign, citing the difficulty of identifying the origin of gold.

Shively pointed to a letter (PDF) Tiffany and Co. sent to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission related to rules limiting the use of conflict materials from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gold lacks to identifying markers, Tiffany said, making it nearly impossible for even smelters to distinguish between recycled or newly mined gold, let alone the location source.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user NPCA Photos.