After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision last week to reject a key permit for Alaska’s proposed Pebble Mine, it’s clear that federal protection is now needed to permanently preserve this uniquely valuable resource. The project threatened too much destruction to the immense salmon runs of Bristol Bay.
The list of reasons to protect the bay’s watershed is long. Its annual chinook and sockeye salmon runs are the largest on Earth. All five species of Pacific salmon live in Bristol Bay, and its watershed produces about half the world’s annual sockeye harvest. The commercial and recreational fisheries support large portions of the region’s economy, and Bristol Bay’s salmon have sustained Alaska natives for many generations. Thousands of Washingtonians fish those salmon each year, for work and recreation.
The bay’s diverse salmon runs feed other populations, too — from orcas to the thousands of brown bears on the Alaska peninsula. The mine was predicted to disrupt this food chain mightily in the name of extracting rich veins of copper and gold, and potentially molybdenum and rhenium.
It is fitting that the Corps stopped the mine by denying it a permit required by the Clean Water Act. The impact on the wetlands surrounding Bristol Bay’s headwaters from excavating millions of tons of minerals each year could have been a catastrophe with long-lasting harmful reverberations. But the Clean Water Act is not safe from political rollbacks. The Trump administration proved this in undoing more than 80 environmental rules across the past four years, including seven water pollution regulations. There must be a permanent protection for Bristol Bay against an industrial-scale mining concern. As the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said in 2008, such a project “is the wrong mine for the wrong place.”
The time has come to permanently, and specifically, target Bristol Bay as a vital national resource. Its health must be preserved even if the Environmental Protection Agency is subverted. Both of Alaska’s current Republican senators criticized the proposed mine. They should cooperate with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to fight for preservation of the bay via the same section of the Clean Water Act that protects the Florida Everglades from exploitation.
Support for a bipartisan plan to protect Bristol Bay should be an early priority for President-elect Joe Biden. He campaigned on his ability to bring Republicans and Democrats into cooperative dialogue, and on being a good environmental steward. Bristol Bay is an ideal chance to show those values lead to real-world results. Pebble Mine was too close a call to ignore.