10/19/2011 09:48 am ET Updated Dec 19, 2011

We're for Local Control (Except, of Course, When We Are Not)

Bristol Bay, Alaska -- Voters in the Lake and Peninsula Borough in rural Alaska have voted to block the salmon-threatening Pebble Gold Mine, by a vote of 280 to 246. The company behind the mining project is calling this result "very narrow," although it is actually 53 percent to 47 percent -- not really that close. And surveys by the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, which represents 7,000 indigenous people from the region, show that at least 70 percent of its members oppose the mine. In response to this local sentiment, the two mining giants behind the project continue to make it abundantly clear how little respect they have for the people whose communities they plan to disrupt and perhaps destroy.

Iliamna Lake, the largest sockeye salmon nursery in the world, lies directly in the path of any spill or other mishap that might occur while creating the world's largest man-made pit, potentially covering 15 square miles. Anglo-American and Northern Dynasty, the two partners, have spent hundreds of millions of dollars already and proclaim their find to be the largest undeveloped deposit of its type in the world, with the potential to produce 53 billion pounds of copper, 50 million ounces of gold, and 2.8 billion pounds of molybdenum. The odds of such a project going without error for its 80-year lifespan are unbelievably small. The fishery that's at risk generates far more jobs than the mine would and is worth $138 million a year. The Pebble Mine is simply a bad idea.

The mine's backers have insisted that they will proceed only with local support, which they claim to have. But when the local community placed a measure on the ballet to decide the fate of the mine, the Pebble Partnership went to court to prevent the vote. Although the judge declined to take the measure off the ballot, he did not rule on the related question: whether the local citizens have the right under Alaskan law to block this project. This morning, the Pebble Partnership insisted that the vote of the people would not stop it from proceeding.

The mining corporations have behind them the force and power of the State of Alaska, which has repeatedly insisted that the project cannot be blocked by local citizens. Indeed, in an earlier court case a judge ruled that the state was not required to give public notice before issuing exploratory permits for the project site. He also found the state didn't need to study the potential impacts of the activity first. The state -- and the mining corporations -- have insisted that in this case local people should have no influence at all. That, of course, contradicts the position that the State of Alaska historically takes on issues like logging and oil drilling lands owned by the people of the United States -- in those situations, only local opinion should be taken into account!

But if it was a good day for salmon in Bristol Bay, the signs were mixed elsewhere. On Capitol Hill, Senator Lisa Murkowski moved forward to prevent the Food and Drug Administration from authorizing the release of inadequately researched and potentially dangerous "Frankenfish," genetically modified salmon whose impact on natural fisheries is, frankly, anyone's guess. Since this amendment was already included in a House bill earlier this year, it seems like, for the first time, Congress may be ready to insist that when it comes to at least some genetically modified food, we are better safe than sorry.

On the other hand. Murkowski joined with Louisiana's Senator David Vitter to support a rider that would prevent the federal government from doing any kind of marine planning -- thereby putting wild salmon at risk with her right hand while she protects them with her left. And researchers in British Columbia reported that a lethal virus that has damaged salmon stocks in the Atlantic and Chile has been found for the first time on the West Coast of North America, almost certainly imported with salmon eggs brought in for farming salmon on the Pacific coast. Infectious salmon anemia typically kills 70 percent of the fish when it strikes a salmon farm -- its impact on wild fish stocks is impossible to measure, but its arrival on the Pacific Coast is a chilling reminder that things often don't go as planned when we allow activities like gold mining or the release of genetically different (or genetically modified) species.

Senator Murkowski should recognize that it's her left hook that will protect the fisheries she loves -- not her right jab.