THE BLOG
07/19/2012 03:56 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Time to Toss Pebble Mine is Now. Really.

Here in Alaska, the proposed Pebble Mine project is not a partisan issue, but it is very political. It's an issue of fish vs. cyanide, Alaskans vs. multinational corporations, Native culture vs. the bottom line, sustainable jobs vs. instant gratification, and food security vs. greed. It's a battle between holding on to the best of our state, and the last great wild salmon run in the world, and letting it all slip away to line the pockets of the already wealthy multinational mining conglomerates. We have a lot at stake. And right now, we can actually help to influence how this all turns out.

What used to be the biggest pending environmental disaster no one ever heard about, is finally getting some national attention. Recently the project has been featured on Dan Rather's weekly news show, Dan Rather Reports, the New York Times food section, and The Atlantic. They have all reported on the bay, the mine, the salmon, and the intricate and mysterious hydrology of this unique, pristine watershed.

Anglo American Mining (whose track record is less than stellar) wants to put one of the world's largest open pit gold and copper mines at the headwaters of the largest remaining wild salmon fishery on earth -- a fishery that feeds the nation, employs more than 14,000 people, and has sustained human beings in the Bristol Bay area for thousands of years. If you're anyone except a gigantic mining conglomerate, it's a no-brainer. But the mineral wealth at the proposed site is vast, and The Pebble Partnership will do whatever it takes to get it.

Cyanide and pools of other toxic mining waste will have to be held back from leaching into the rivers that feed Bristol Bay by a series of earthen dams 700 feet tall -- that's 100 feet taller than the Space Needle. And they would sit smack atop the most seismically active region on the planet.

 

The area of the proposed Pebble Mine. Earthen dams would have to maintain their integrity in perpetuity, with this kind of seismic activity.

The mine has not been permitted yet. The "permitting process" in Alaska has become little more than lip service to the people. The project always goes forward. And any politician that tells you "it's only fair to let the permitting process continue," knows this.

But supporters of the fishery have an ace in the hole. It's called provision 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. What it says in a nutshell is that the federal government has the legal authority to stop a project in its tracks if it threatens something so remarkable, so valuable to the nation and its people that no risk is acceptable -- like, for instance, the world's largest wild salmon fishery. Provision 404(c) says we shouldn't even be having the conversation. It's what most Alaskans think.

Native Alaskan Bobby Andrew checks salmon he is smoking at his home in Dillingham, Alaska, on Bristol Bay. Woods opposes the proposed Pebble Mine. (Photo by Stuart Isett)

But before this can happen, and in order for the current administration to have justification to use provision 404(c), there has to be a very detailed study by the EPA of the Bristol Bay watershed. They just finished it.

What the EPA found is that even if everything went completely according to plan, and the mine did exactly what it was supposed to do, with zero error, zero unintended accidents, zero unforeseen consequences, even if those colossal earthen dams held -- the fishery is still at grave risk. They determined that even normal contamination from mining chemicals could degrade rivers, streams, and wipe out vital salmon habitat for decades. They released their findings in May.

Since that time, the EPA has held hearings, and taken public comment in communities across the Bristol Bay area, and in Anchorage and Washington, where a thousand Bristol Bay commercial fishing permit holders reside. Thousands attended these meetings. More than 90 percent of those giving testimony, including those who will be affected most, supported the EPA's assessment of the watershed. It's not even close.

The public has been given 60 days to comment on the study. But not everyone likes the idea of that timeline. The Pebble Partnership requested that the comment period be extended six months -- to a date that happens to fall after the presidential election in November. And there are some Alaska politicians who agree with this delay, namely Senator Lisa Murkowski (who never met a corporation she didn't like), Congressman Don Young, and Governor Sean Parnell -- all Republicans.

"The EPA's refusal to provide additional time for the public to comment on the draft watershed assessment for Bristol Bay demonstrates, once again, that the agency does not understand Alaska," Murkowski said. "There is no deadline -- other than the one arbitrarily imposed by the EPA -- that requires the agency to act now."

You see, according to Lisa Murkowski, we're a little slow up here in Alaska. It's summertime, and 60 days just isn't long enough for us to figure out what to say and click send. Or, she's banking on an administration, and an EPA head that is more likely to side with Pebble, and less likely to side with everyone else.

Even though Democratic Senator Mark Begich is one of those "let the permitting process go forward" politicians, even he couldn't support the extension with a straight face. "Believe me, Alaskans have never had a problem giving their opinions and meeting a deadline," Begich said in a phone interview with the Bristol Bay Times. Also in support for keeping the original timeline, and not letting it run through a presidential election cycle are the region's State House Rep. Bryce Edgmon, and Jason Metrokin, President and CEO of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation.

The EPA has, in fact, recently declined to grant the comment extension that the multinationals and their politicians have asked for, which pleases opponents of the mine.

The comment period will end as scheduled next week on Monday, July 23. People have until then to speak up for the fishermen, the Native Alaskans of the Bristol Bay region, the environment, sustainable jobs, and wild salmon.

Commercial fishermen in Bristol Bay (photo by Nick Hall)

Encouraging the EPA to pull the plug on Pebble is the most effective way of stopping the project. Proponents of the mine would have you believe this is an unprecedented case of federal overreach and interference in a local project. In reality, provision 404(c) has already been used 13 times since its inception.

As a matter of fact, the impressive list of those who asked the EPA to get involved are:

9 Bristol Bay Tribes, The Bristol Bay Native Corporation (a multi-billion dollar developer and the largest land-owner in the Bristol Bay region representing 8,700 native shareholders), Bristol Bay Native Association (a non-profit corporation and tribal consortium serving the 31 federally recognized tribes in the Bristol Bay region), Commercial fishing interests represented by Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association and Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, The National Council of Churches, 355 Sportfishing and hunting organizations from Alaska to Washington DC and over 200 chefs and restaurant owners.

Hall Herring, from Field & Stream says, "If you are a Field & Stream reader, you know what is at stake here, north of Bristol Bay, in the heart of the burgeoning wilds, in the headwaters of our souls... Now is the time for those of us who know what is there, and for those of us who would one day like to see it as it is, in the perfection of its creation, to be heard."

This is a critical juncture, and our best home for saving Bristol Bay. Submit your comments in support of the EPA's draft watershed assessment HERE.


Photo of the land around the proposed Pebble Mine site, by Robert Glenn Ketchum.