Pebble Mine: A Threat to Alaska's Salmon, People and Economy (Op-Ed)

LiveScience.com

Taryn Kiekow is a senior policy analyst for NRDC's marine mammal protection project;she contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Bristol Bay is located in the remote wildlands of southwest Alaska and supports the largest runs of wild salmon on the planet — over half of the world's supply of sockeye.

Every year, some 40 million salmon return to spawnin the pristine rivers and streams of the Bristol Bay watershed. But right now, the future of this little-known natural jewel is caught up in a frenzied political fight, part of what the Washington Post calls President Barack Obama's biggest environmental decision that "you've never heard of."

That decision is whether to protect Bristol Bay from a proposed mega-mine called Pebble Mine — a colossal, open-pit copper and gold mine that would be up to 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) long and 1,700 feet (518 meters) deep — a huge worry for the residents of Bristol Bay who overwhelmingly oppose the project.

Although the mining industry is lobbying hard to build it, West Coast senators, House members and local businesses have lined up in opposition. And it's also something the Obama administration could easily stop.

Salmon are the lifeblood of the region. Alaska Natives have lived off salmonfor thousands of years, and their welfare, health and cultural stability are intricately tied to these fish. Salmon also support an abundance of wildlife — from brown bears and eagles to whales and seals. [Fast-Evolving Fish Struggle to Spawn in Wild]

But the benefits of salmon to the region extend beyond sustenance: Salmon also form the economic backbone of the area.

An economic report released in April by researchers at the University of Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research found that the Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishery is worth $1.5 billiona year, making it the most valuable wild-salmon fishery in the world. Not only do salmon sustain a prized commercial fishery, but they also sustain 14,000 jobs (according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)'s draft watershed assessment on Bristol Bay), world-class sports fishing and an economy for Alaska Natives.

Pebble Mine could put all of this at risk. If built as planned at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Pebble Mine would be the largest mine in North America, producing some 10 billion tons (9 billion metric tons) of toxic mining waste that would be stored in the rivers, streams and wildlands of Bristol Bay's high-quality salmon habitat. Even under the best conditions, it would be virtually impossible to keep the hazardous waste from leaking, putting salmon — which are highly sensitive to even the slightest increases in copper — in great jeopardy. And Bristol Bay provides challenging conditions: The extremely porous tundra sits in a seismically active area, and the ore, once exposed to air, will produce acid drainage.

The EPA re-released its draft Bristol Bay watershed assessment report in April, revealing the potential impacts of large-scale mining like the Pebble Mine on the watershed. The report's findings are shocking. Even in a best-case scenario — operating at the highest industry standards and experiencing no leaks or failures — Pebble Mine would destroy up to 90 miles (145 km) of stream, eliminate up to 4,800 acres (1,943 hectares) of wetlands, and dewater an additional 34 miles (55 km) of stream.

Even under routine operations, the construction and support of the mine would require a huge amount of infrastructure across land currently untouched by humans: from culverts and pipelines to power plants and tailings dams. Worse, a tailings dam failure could be "catastrophically damaging."

The EPA also found that large-scale mining could pose serious threats to wildlife and Alaska Native cultures.

It's no wonder that 85 percent of commercial fishermen in Bristol Bay, 81 percent of the Bristol Bay Native Corp.'s native shareholders and 80 percent of Bristol Bay residents oppose the Pebble Mine.

Right now, the people and wildlife of Bristol Bay are preparing for the annual return of the salmon. Commercial fishermen are readying boats and equipment. Alaska Natives are mending nets and smokehouses. Lodge owners and sportsmen are anticipating another lucrative tourist season. And hungry bears have awakened from hibernation.

The EPA is also preparing. The agency is accepting public comment on its draft watershed assessment. That draft has already undergone extensive public comment, including hearings in Alaska and peer review from a panel of 12 independent experts. Last year alone, the EPA received more than 233,000 public comments, over 90 percent of which urged the agency to protect Bristol Bay.

The EPA recently extended the current public comment period until June 30, in order to allow the public more time to weigh in. So far, the real winners of the extended comment period are pro-mining groups, who have recently generated a flurry of comments. According to a June 17, 2013 article in the Washington Post, the Competitive Enterprise Institute's (CEI) Resourceful Earth website has single-handedly flooded the docket with 99.25 percent of all anti-EPA comments. A conservative think tank, CEI is generally opposed to environmental regulations and has received millions of dollars over the years from the mining, oil and gas, and coal industries — as well as from groups associated with the Koch brothers, the article adds.

Bristol Bay is too important to let the Koch brothers and mining interests win this fight. The EPA can stop the mine under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act — something our government does sparingly and judiciously. If ever there were a case for using this power, Bristol Bay is the place. This is why NRDC asks everyone to join us and urge the Obama administration to protect the people, salmon, wildlife and businesses of Bristol Bay from the poisonous threats of the Pebble Mine. The future of one of the world's greatest natural treasures is at stake.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on LiveScience.com.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
View Comments (148)

Recommended for You

  • David Cassidy prepares to auction Florida mansion

    FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Like many of his baby boomer peers with grown children and debts to settle, one-time heartthrob David Cassidy is looking to downsize.

    Associated Press34 mins ago
  • Luggage piece found on French island near possible MH370 debris

    Part of a bag was found Thursday on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion not far from plane debris which has fuelled speculation it may be from missing flight MH370. "The piece of luggage was here since yesterday but nobody really paid attention," said Johnny Begue, a member of a local…

    AFP
  • Family Pet-Sitter Helps Herself To Homeowner's Possessions

    DEAR ABBY: A trusted and beloved family member who takes care of my cats -- and therefore has a key to my house -- has been stealing things like cleaning supplies, knickknacks, family pictures, etc. Most of them have little monetary value. But imagine my surprise when I spotted some of my missing…

    Dear Abby
  • Turkey onslaught on Kurds, after IS attack, fuels anger

    DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (AP) — Just when it seemed Turkey was getting serious about the fight against IS, it has turned its military focus to pounding its old foe: the Kurdish rebels.

    Associated Press27 mins ago
  • An American Dentist Killed Zimbabwe’s Famous Lion

    Cecil the lion, a famous black-maned resident of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, died at the hands of an American dentist, conservationists claim. “Mr. Palmer shot Cecil with a bow and arrow but this shot didn't kill him,” Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, said in…

    TakePart.com
  • Chicago man cleared after 17 years in prison shot dead

    CHICAGO (AP) — A Chicago man who served 17 years in prison for murder before being cleared of the crime has been shot and killed almost three years after being released from prison, police said Wednesday.

    Associated Press
  • Russia reassures Israel over Iran nuclear deal

    Russian President Vladimir Putin told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday that the deal on Iran's nuclear program would improve security in the Middle East and guaranteed that Tehran would not acquire nuclear arms. Israel plans to lobby the U.S. Congress not to approve the…

    Reuters
  • Play

    Body cam footage from Cincinnati shooting contradicts official story

    A University of Cincinnati police officer has been indicted for murder after body camera footage contradicted his official story outlining the events that led to the shooting death of unarmed Cincinnati driver Samuel Dubose.

    Reuters Videos
  • Dashcam catches off-duty cop threatening to put 'hole in head' of driver

    Technically Incorrect: A Massachusetts driver makes a wrong turn. What happens next, all filmed on his dashcam, has led to an investigation. And yes, it's now on YouTube.

    CNET
  • Hidden Security Cameras Are Shocking Surprise For Daughter

    DEAR ABBY: I'm a 19-year-old woman in college who still lives with my parents. I found out something several weeks ago that's bothering me, and I need advice badly. Years ago, after a robbery, my parents installed security cameras outside our house. I knew about them because they were visible. But…

    Dear Abby
  • Colorado theater shooter's dad saw wide-eyed smirk before

    CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) — James Holmes came home on winter break from graduate school looking haggard and making odd facial expressions, but his father didn't suspect at the time that he was descending into mental illness.

    Associated Press
  • Goat's head nearly severed in brutal knife attack in Idaho

    A small goat was nearly decapitated and another goat died from a "heinous" knife attack on the animals in a fenced and locked site where they had been placed to graze on weeds in northern Idaho, a police spokeswoman said on Wednesday. A third goat is being treated for a knife wound in its back from…

    Reuters
  • Trump leads Republicans, but Democrats thump him: poll

    Bombastic US billionaire Donald Trump handily leads all fellow Republicans in the 2016 presidential race, though Hillary Clinton and other Democrats trump him in head-to-head matchups, a poll said Thursday. Trump plunged into the crowded Republican nomination battle last month, and has since…

    AFP
  • Play

    Custom truck built by father and son stolen in Lemoore

    A Lemoore man is on the hunt for his stolen pick-up truck. The classic custom ride holds significant sentiment to its owner, who built the truck with his late father.

    KFSN – Fresno
  • Police Officer Involved in Deadly Cincinnati Shooting of Samuel DuBose Indicted for Murder, Dismissed from Force

    "I'm treating him like a murderer," prosecutor Joseph Deters said during a news conference when describing the warrant out for a police officer who killed Samuel DuBose, 43, earlier this month. Footage released today from a police officer's body cam lasts about 10 minutes and shows the shooting.…

    ABC News
  • Internet mauls dentist accused of illegal kill of popular lion

    Technically Incorrect: Walter Palmer, a dentist in Minnesota, has his Yelp entry attacked by those not fond of his allegedly illegal killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe.

    CNET
  • Taliban disavows Afghan peace talks after leader declared dead

    By Kay Johnson KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban's official spokesman disavowed peace talks with the Afghan government on Thursday, throwing fledgling efforts to negotiate an end to 14 years of war into disarray. The statement came a day after the Afghan government said that Mullah Omar, the elusive…

    Reuters