The EPA is seeking to withdraw protections for Bristol Bay to clear the path for the development of large-scale mining on state lands.
AS a longtime Pacific Northwesterner, I’ve enjoyed many delicious salmon dinners with family and friends, and I’ve come to cherish the pristine watersheds that sustain these wild creatures.
While working on a book about Bristol Bay, Alaska, with photographer Carl Johnson, I learned just how essential this particular watershed is to our global supply of salmon and how close we are to losing it.
Bristol Bay supports the largest wild sockeye salmon fishery in the world, with approximately 46 percent of the average global abundance of the fish. Picture 40 million burnished red sockeye salmon returning annually from their years at sea to spawn in the cold, crystal-clear streams that feed Bristol Bay. Now picture an enormous open pit mine situated directly atop these crucial headwaters.
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In 2014, following a four-year review process, 1.5 million public comments and verification from hundreds of scientists, the Environmental Protection Agency determined that the Bristol Bay watershed is too fragile to tolerate the risks of large-scale mining. It proposed restrictions under the Clean Water Act that would have limited the size and impact of the potential Pebble Mine.
On July 11, 2017, in an abrupt about-face, the EPA is seeking to withdraw these suggested protections to clear the path for the development of large-scale mining on state and federal lands. The Pebble deposit, with massive reserves of gold, copper and molybdenum, is in the headwaters of two of the eight major rivers that feed Bristol Bay. If built, it would be the largest mine in North America. Any release of the acidic waste generated from mining into surface or groundwater could be catastrophic. The 2014 Mount Polley Mine disaster in Canada proved that even the most technologically advanced mine can fail.
For years, commercial fishermen and women, tribes, sportsmen and women, tourism operators, chefs, and Bristol Bay’s business owners have fought against this proposed mining development. Bristol Bay’s salmon are integral to food security worldwide and critical locally, where subsistence accounts for an average of 80 percent of the protein area residents consume, and salmon make up over half of the subsistence harvest. I can choose a different dinner but in Bristol Bay, salmon is life.
In the foreword to Johnson’s book, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “In Bristol Bay, we must take the long view. We must expand our concept of wealth, counting the riches of food for the community to be just as important, if not more important, than profits to shareholders.”
If we protect the Bristol Bay fishery, we can have both food and shareholder profits, jobs and a clean environment, year after year. This salmon industry generates more than $1.5 billion in economic activity annually and it supports 14,000 jobs in Bristol Bay alone. Fishing provides more jobs and state revenue in Alaska than mining. The economic benefits are felt along the entire West Coast, especially in Washington. The Pebble Mine would jeopardize this thriving fish-based economy along with the fish that feed millions.
The Pebble Mine prospect is the wrong mine in the wrong place. Puget Sounders who care about salmon should send their comments to the EPA now, during a brief 90-day comment period on this move to prioritize short-term profits through mining over long-term, sustainable economic gains and food security through fishing. Let’s make our voices heard.