In a time of so much dire environmental news, savor the welcome Alaska bulletin that July’s sockeye salmon run in Bristol Bay set an all-time record. The more than 65.5 million sockeye tallied as they swam toward spawning grounds beat any year in fish counts that go back to 1893. This finding offers convincing justification for permanently shielding the bay’s fish-rich headwaters from mining.
When President Joe Biden was on the campaign trail a year ago, he spoke out against the proposed Pebble Mine, which would reap gold and copper near rivers that feed the bay.
“It is no place for a mine,” Biden said then. Now he needs to put federal action behind his words and permanently ban such projects.
Pebble Mine is not an imminent threat to Bristol Bay. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied an essential permit for that open-pit mine in November. But an appeal is pending, and no federal restriction forbids Pebble Mine, or another excavation, from eventually threatening Bristol Bay.
Such a development could be disastrous for the fish population. State and federal agencies evaluating the Pebble Mine permit found it would permanently damage more than 2,800 acres of wetlands and 130 miles of streams in the Koktuli River Watershed, which flows into Bristol Bay. The mile-long mining pit would have generated enormous amounts of chemical byproducts, called tailings, to be stored in an on-site lake that could prove toxic to fish if they leached into nearby waters by erosion, earthquake or simple human error.
With one of the world’s greatest salmon runs at stake — not to mention the livelihoods of 14,000 people who work within the fishery’s annual $1.5 billion economy — such a risk is too great to allow.
With Biden now in charge, the Environmental Protection Agency should use its authority under the Clean Water Act to permanently prohibit the mine and other harmful development of Bristol Bay, as Indigenous and environmentalist groups have called for in recent weeks.
Generations of Alaskans and Washingtonians yet to be born should be able to feast on Bristol Bay salmon, and to join commercial and recreational fishing expeditions. The federal government must shield this irreplaceable Northwestern treasure from potential harm and make the Bristol Bay area, as Biden said, “no place for a mine” permanently.