A Tale of Two Futures: Alaskan Wild Salmon vs. the Pebble Mine

09/06/2017 08:37 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2017

For anyone still unclear about the irreconcilable disconnect between the rich heritage of Alaskans and the overriding financial self-interest of The Pebble Partnership, it was on stunning display in Bristol Bay’s wild salmon fishery this summer.

No region on Earth is more conducive to wild salmon than the Bristol Bay watershed in southwest Alaska. Bristol Bay has a well-earned reputation as the “Fort Knox of wild salmon” – a place where annual salmon runs are measured not in the hundreds, not in the thousands or even hundreds of thousands, but in the tens of millions. Not just occasionally but every year, generating consistently and sustainably an estimated 14,000 jobs and annual revenue of $1.5 billion for the people of the region and others engaged around the world. Bristol Bay sock-eye salmon is called “Red Gold” for a reason, and it is the economic engine that has sustained the region, its communities and culture, and its wildlife for millennia.

This summer Bristol Bay’s commercial salmon fishery smashed records with an astonishing run of almost 60 million fish. With those numbers, the 2017 catch landed among the top five since record keeping began in 1952. In Alaska this is understandable cause for rejoicing – not just today but long into the future if the Bristol Bay fishery is protected.

Robert Glenn Ketchum

But The Pebble Partnership – consisting of one underfunded Canadian exploration company called Northern Dynasty Minerals -- has a different future in mind. It wants to build one of the largest open pit gold and copper mines in the world literally in the headwaters of the Bristol Bay fishery – a scheme to enrich the company’s shareholders that puts the Bristol Bay fishery at risk. If this Canadian company and their investors get their way, they will elevate their own pursuit of profit over the health of one of the most pristine and productive natural ecosystems on the planet, promising all the while that they will do – and they intend -- no harm.

Unfortunately for Pebble, there is no possible way these divergent visions for the future of Bristol Bay can be reconciled, and here’s why:

First, for the region’s residents, the future is grounded on a healthy, vibrant fishery — exemplified by this year’s spectacular run. Their families, their communities, their economic security, and their culture – all of these are tied to sustainable co-existence with the salmon fishery. While The Pebble Partnership assures us all that it wants the same thing, the reality is that its reason to exist – its singular asset – is a destructive, dirty, and dangerous mega-mine in the headwaters of the very fishery it promises to protect.

Never mind that mega-mines sited near water, as planned at Pebble, have a well-documented history of contamination. Never mind that significant tailings dam failures are dramatically on the rise. And never mind that the company’s responsibility to monitor, manage, and mitigate the Pebble Mine would necessarily extend over hundreds to thousands of years, since even after closure the mine must be secured in perpetuity to prevent acid mine or other toxic drainage. No worries, say Pebble’s leadership, promising to engineer for the long-term – or at least, one infers, until the company goes out of business.

Of course, if mining proponents were more candid about the true impacts and risks, no one would give them the time of day – much less a permit -- so they promise the moon, hoping investors and decision-makers will fall for it. Inevitably, this charade calls to mind Mark Twain’s prescient observation a century and a half ago that “a mine is a hole in the ground owned by liars.” And so it remains.

Second, although Alaska is renowned as a development-friendly state – including for mining – Alaskans have registered their opposition to the Pebble Mine in unprecedented numbers. For over a decade a broad coalition of interests -- tribes, commercial and recreational fishermen, hunters, conservationists, Republicans and Democrats, and even business and development leaders (including the region’s largest, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation) -- has actively opposed this uniquely risky project. Within the Bristol Bay region itself, the opposition to Pebble exceeds 80 percent. Among commercial fishermen, opposition exceeds 95 percent. And polls have shown a consistent 65 percent opposition state-wide, including a successful 2014 initiative to protect Bristol Bay salmon forever from projects like the Pebble Mine. Short of abandoning the project, there is nothing The Pebble Partnership can do to derail this opposition.

Third, the scientific record -- developed through years of peer-reviewed science, critiqued by extensive public comment, and endorsed by federal environmental regulators – confirms the potentially “catastrophic” consequences of building a large mine at the top of the Bristol Bay watershed. That’s anathema to Pebble, because, but for the ascendency of the Trump Administration – and Trump’s elevation of anti-EPA zealot Scott Pruitt to run the agency onto the rocks – that scientific record would unequivocally dictate protection for Bristol Bay and an end to Pebble’s irresponsible scheme.

Under the new federal regime, the Pebble project has been thrown a momentary lifeline, with an EPA rule-making now underway to rescind proposed protections. While encouraging to Pebble’s investors, there is nothing that Pruitt can do over the long-term to scrub the underlying scientific record and assuage the determined opposition in Alaska. Eventually, regulatory integrity will regain its footing, and the rule of law will be returned to the people of Bristol Bay.

2017 was a banner year for the Bristol Bay fishery and an awesome bellwether of the region’s unique future. For The Pebble Partnership, on the other hand, the 2017 harvest is a graphic and unhappy reminder of the national treasure it’s up against.

Support the people of Alaska. Join the fight for Bristol Bay. Take action now to stop the Pebble Mine.

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