The environment racked up a series of wins on controversial megaprojects in the first months of Joe Biden’s presidency. In June alone, the administration suspended oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, revoked a permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline and announced restoration of the “roadless rule” protecting Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from widespread logging.
Add the demise of an immense gas-to-methanol plant in Kalama, and recent environmental progress looks substantial in this region and beyond. But for the Northwest, the necessary work to preserve natural resources extends past these milestones.
Two still-possible projects need further federal action to end their potential for harm to salmon, orcas and other wildlife. The Biden administration should ensure the proposed Pebble Mine project in Alaska and the Imperial Metals mine in British Columbia are never built. Each is on hold. The door must close fully on both to help salmon restoration make headway.
Pebble Mine, on a site perilously close to headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, awaits a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decision on an appeal of its decision to deny a permit to developers last year. That process could extend into 2022. The health of Bristol Bay and a significant slice of the regional fishing economy depend on the denial being upheld.
Commercial and recreational fishing trips to Bristol Bay attract thousands of Washington fishers every (non-pandemic) year, helping produce an annual economic benefit of about $2.2 billion. Half the world’s sockeye salmon harvest comes from Bristol Bay waters. Mining millions of tons of copper, gold and potentially other precious elements from Pebble Mine could disrupt the bay’s watershed irreparably. Toxic mining byproducts would also require permanent storage safeguards to ensure they didn’t seep into the bay and harm fish.
Biden said Pebble Mine was a bad idea before the permit was rejected. Now the Corps needs to procedurally finish off the project by denying the appeal.
Biden needs to use international diplomacy to hasten the end of the Imperial Metals proposal in British Columbia, which would directly affect Washington waters. This mine, still awaiting a permit decision, would excavate gold and copper from 11 square miles of Skagit River headwaters. The Skagit provides 30 percent of Puget Sound’s freshwater flow and is a habitat for all five species of native Pacific Northwest salmon — including the majority of the Sound’s chinook. Endangered salmon are extremely vulnerable to pollution from copper and other metals, making this proposed open-pit mine too risky to allow. Communities across Skagit and north Island County draw their drinking water from the Skagit River. The potential harm to Washington is too great to consider the project a Canadian matter alone.
The U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday passed an important bill by Washington Reps. Derek Kilmer and Marilyn Strickland, both Democrats, to put $50 million in new federal money toward Puget Sound environmental recovery and elevate Puget Sound restoration as a federal priority.
That is a promising sign worthy of support. But it would be pouring good money after bad if potentially destructive big projects are not stopped before they can take root.