THIS is a nation accustomed to making tough choices between the development and protection of our natural resources.
When I served as U.S. secretary of the Interior, the country weighed the merits and risks of offshore oil drilling and made decisions that were both difficult and controversial.
But the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska is not a tough choice.
The question of whether to build a massive copper mine in the heart of the planet’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery has a simple answer: no. Pebble is the wrong mine in absolutely the wrong place.
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Understanding these risks, the Obama administration has pledged to use the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay.
Yet, the project’s supporters have not given up, turning to specious legal arguments and a handful of allies in Congress as a part of a last-ditch effort to save a fundamentally flawed proposal.
These arguments hold no water. The 12-square-mile open-pit mine, which is estimated to contain huge copper, gold and molybdenum deposits, would be carved among the streams and rivers that flow into Alaska’s Bristol Bay. The nearly 40 million sockeye salmon that return each year to spawn in the Bristol Bay watershed support a $1.5 billion economy and 14,000 jobs.
Scientists recently completed a thorough, three-year review of the mine and its impacts on the watershed. The study found the mine would destroy pristine wetlands, that roads and pipelines would slice through salmon-spawning streams, and that toxic chemicals would likely damage Bristol Bay’s waters.
Alaska Native American communities have assessed the mine’s impacts on their livelihoods and way of life, and have reached the same conclusion. Commercial fishermen in Alaska say that “large-scale mineral development activities present serious risks for the Bristol Bay salmon fishery.” They are among the 70 percent of Alaskan voters who believe the Pebble Mine poses a threat to the state’s fishing industry.
Even the mining companies initially backing the Pebble Mine have concluded it’s a losing proposition. The mining giant Rio Tinto abandoned the project in April. Anglo-American withdrew its 50 percent stake in the project last year, taking a $500 million loss in the process.
Unfortunately, not all of the mine’s original supporters have followed suit. In the months since the Environmental Protection Agency announced its initiation of the Clean Water Act process in Bristol Bay, the Pebble Limited Partnership has filed suit against the agency, falsely claiming the EPA is acting outside of its authority.
Some in Congress have introduced legislation in both the House and Senate, directly aimed at halting the EPA’s work in southwest Alaska. On Wednesday, in fact, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is expected to take up one of these bills, misleadingly named the “Regulatory Certainty Act.”
Though these efforts and claims hold no merit, if sustained, they would only mean further delay and uncertainty for the people of Bristol Bay. This is unacceptable.
President Obama and the EPA are using the Clean Water Act appropriately with respect to Bristol Bay. After more than a decade of study and debate, more reviews would only consume additional time and resources. Proponents of the mine have had ample opportunity to make their case. Frivolous legal action and misguided legislative efforts will not change the fact that the Pebble Mine is the wrong mine in the wrong place.
The choice is simple. Protect the greatest salmon fishery on the planet. Protect Bristol Bay’s watershed.
Bruce Babbitt served as U.S. Secretary of the Interior from 1993 to 2001 and as governor of Arizona from 1978 to 1987. He is based in Washington, D.C.