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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Save the Salmon: How Pebble Mine is Poised to Suck the Life Out of Bristol Bay

(photo credit: wildsalmoncenter.org)

I've been intending for the past several months to write a blog post about the looming crisis in Bristol Bay, Alaska.  The synopsis sounds like a classic Hollywood script pitting Native Americans and mom & pop commercial fishermen against an aggressive and well-connected mining company that sees Bristol Bay as an obstacle in their quest for mineral wealth.

The proposed Pebble Mine would be located on state lands in southwestern Alaska and, if built, would be the largest gold and copper mine in the world.  What is at stake is the water quality of the nearby Bristol Bay.  A recently released research report from the University of Alaska placed the annual value of the Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishery at $1.5 billion, making Bristol Bay the most valuable wild salmon fishery in the world. The same report also valued the direct annual income for Americans working in the Bristol Bay salmon industry at $580 million. Bristol Bay's salmon industry supports 7,800 full-time jobs, 12,000 seasonal jobs, and creates a positive ripple across the country when one considers the multiplier effects of distribution and retailing in grocery stores, restaurants, warehousing services, etc.

Native Alaskan drying salmon.
(photo credit: renewableresourcescoalition.org)
Aside from the dollar signs that swim around the Bristol Bay controversy, there is also a less flashy aspect to what is at stake.  There are thousands of Yupik Eskimo, Aleut and Athabaskan tribal members currently living in the Bristol Bay region and whose ancestors have been fishing these waters for thousands of years.  These Native Alaskans are subsistence fishermen, with wild salmon comprising an average of about 52 percent of their families' diets.  So it is not only sockeye salmon that rely on the clean water in Bristol Bay and its tributaries. 

Native Alaskan eating salmon. (photo credit: nrdconline.org)
As part of their review of the proposed mining operation, the EPA prepared an extensive scientific review, the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, detailing the potential impacts of large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay, Alaska, region.

The mining company, the Pebble Partnership, is playing a high-stakes political game which, if they win, will have tragic adverse impacts on critical wildlife habitat in a region that relies on fishing and hunting tourism in addition to relying on the sockeye salmon fishery itself.  The EPA's Assessment found that even without a catastrophic spill or a series of harmful smaller spills, up to 87 miles of salmon streams and up to 4,300 acres of salmon habitat would be likely be destroyed by the proposed mining operation. Now try to wrap your head around this nugget:  the scale of the proposed mining operations would mean that up to 10 billion tons of toxic mine waste must be stored, treated, and monitored "in perpetuity."

Come on.  Who thinks for one minute that Pebble Partnership's investors would actually forgo a dime of profit to stash away billions of dollars to store, treat, and monitor their mining waste in perpetuity?   The U.S. Office of Surface Mining estimates that there are currently about 400,000 acres of abandoned mine lands in the United States.  “Abandoned” means that these former mine lands are waiting for federal tax dollars to become available to clean them up, because the mining companies that made the mess packed up and left, often shifting assets and filing for bankruptcy to avoid liability for the reclamation. The mining industry simply does not have an acceptable track record of sticking around to clean up after themselves.

Salmon spawning run. (photo credit: treehugger.com)
  As a Licensed Professional Geologist, I am acutely aware of the unavoidable adverse effects on surface water of even just a modest mining operation.  There is no doubt in my mind that the proposed Pebble Mine would irreversibly harm an economically important salmon fishery and the thousands of people whose livelihood depends on the health of that fishery.

The EPA holds a wild card in the form of the Clean Water Act.  The EPA can invoke the Clean Water Act to restrict inappropriate development activities such as the proposed Pebble Mine.   And the EPA is accepting public comment on their Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment until May 31.

So here it is, at the 11th hour.  This is my blog post in which I beg anyone reading to submit a comment to the EPA asking them to invoke the power of the Clean Water Act to prevent wholesale, large scale, irreversible damage to Bristol Bay's water quality and to give a break to all of the wildlife and people who rely on Bristol Bay's ecosystem for their survival.

Regardless of how far from Alaska you might live, our collective voices can be heard by the EPA:  Save Bristol Bay.  Here is a link that you can use to email your comment directly to the EPA on this critical situation:

(photo credit: counterpunch.org)