Photo: National Park Service
Late last week, the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), led by administrator Scott Pruitt, quietly reached a deal with a company called Pebble Limited Partnership, which had been suing the agency for the right to develop one of the world’s largest open-pit mines in the wilderness of southwest Alaska, near Bristol Bay.
The lawsuit centered on the EPA’s 2014 determination — based on a peer-reviewed, three-year scientific study and public comments — that the environmental risks of mining for gold and copper on such a massive scale could devastate the area’s runs of wild salmon. Bristol Bay is home to a $1.5 billion commercial salmon industry, including the largest sockeye salmon fishery on Earth.
But after last week’s settlement, Pebble Limited’s parent company, Northern Dynasty Minerals, is free to apply for EPA permits — with the expectation that a full review will take place despite the 2014 determination — in exchange for dropping the lawsuit. If the permits are granted, the project, known as the Pebble Mine, is expected to proceed despite nearly a decade of opposition from locals, native Alaskans, anglers and environmental groups.
Once again, in one fell swoop, Trump has undermined Obama’s environmental legacy in an attempt to revive yet another pet project of the extractive industries to which he and his cabinet are beholden.
I heard about Pebble Mine years ago through the fly fishing community. Bristol Bay’s world-class angling lures fishermen and fisherwomen from across the globe to cast for salmon and trout in remote, gin-clear streams running through rugged wilderness. Recreational fishing is vital to the area, supporting Alaskan families whose livelihoods depend on salmon and the anglers who pursue them.
But if you don’t fly fish, or if you didn’t happen to catch the news of Pruitt’s crafty settlement, Bristol Bay is unlikely to be on your radar. Hopefully, this article will change that.
In 2008, near the outset of this saga, the late Republican Senator Ted Stevens famously said Pebble “…is the wrong mine for the wrong place.” Nearly a decade later, his words are no less accurate. Here are six reasons Pebble Mine will never be the right mine for Alaskans and Bristol Bay:
- Locals oppose Pebble Mine. And they do so overwhelmingly. A 2009 survey found that 82.4 percent of Alaskans living in the two boroughs (or counties) nearest Bristol Bay oppose the project. Even more — 89.2 percent — believe Pebble Mine is a serious threat to Bristol Bay’s salmon. And in 2014, Alaskans approved a ballot measure giving the state legislature veto power over large-scale mining projects in Bristol Bay if they have the potential to harm the area’s wild salmon. Alaskans are usually more friendly to extractive projects, but in the case of Pebble Mine, salmon are supreme.
- Pebble Mine would put a significant portion of the world’s salmon at risk. Bristol Bay produces half of all wild sockeye salmon. As an industry, the fishery generates 10,000 year-round jobs and $500 million in income. In its 2014 review, the EPA found that an operation like Pebble Mine, which would be located at the headwaters of two salmon rivers, would have destructive consequences on the region’s salmon due to habitat loss and pollution. The potential for accidents, which are not exactly unlikely on a project of this scale, would only exacerbate the ecocide.
- The recreational fishing industry would suffer from Pebble Mine, too. While it pales in comparison to the commercial industry, sport fishing is a significant economic force in Alaska, where anglers spend $1.4 billion annually, and especially in Bristol Bay, where sport fishing supports nearly a thousand jobs and accounts for $27 million in wages and benefits. If salmon stocks were to collapse, as they have due to irresponsible use by extractive industries in New England, Alaskans in Bristol Bay would feel the impact two-fold — commercially and recreationally. That’s why sportsmen and sportswomen, with the support of the fly-fishing industry, have banded together in opposition.
- Pebble Mine would stomp, once again, on indigenous rights. In fact, it was opposition from Alaska’s tribal communities that spurred the EPA’s original review. Natives, which comprise much of Bristol Bay’s population, rely on salmon for sustenance. They also see the fish as culturally and spiritually significant. If Pebble Mine were constructed, the tribes’ way of life, not to mention their ability to pass traditions down to future generations, would be at risk.
- Pebble Mine would mar a jewel of nature. A land replete with wolves, caribou, grizzlies, eagles and, of course, rivers bulging with blood-red sockeye salmon is no place for a gargantuan, open-pit mine. But the Pebble Mine project is more than just a mine. Everything from roads to power plants to the world’s largest earthen dam would need to be built. We’re talking a billion tons of toxic waste that would accrue in man-made ponds and pools. The mine itself would be three miles long and thousands of feet deep. All that infrastructure would result in the loss of streams, lakes and wetlands, and reduce water quality. Salmon and Alaskans who depend on them would suffer the consequences. And that’s not even taking into account the catastrophic damage from an accident.
- Pebble Mine could spark a flurry of mining activity on adjacent lands. There are a million acres of additional mining claims in the wilderness surrounding the proposed Pebble Mine site. If Northern Dynasty Minerals builds enough infrastructure, mining those claims begins to make economic sense. And a rush to mine the Bristol Bay watershed would doom the area’s salmon.
If this issue tugs at your heart, please consider telling EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to stop the Pebble Mine. Putting your opinion on record goes a long way toward shifting the tide of democracy. You can also visit the website of Save Bristol Bay, an organization dedicated to thwarting the Pebble Mine project, to discover more ways to take action.