It’s easy to take wild salmon for granted when we see it prominently featured on restaurant menus and in grocery stores. This wild salmon comes mostly from Alaska because elsewhere over the last century, society has chosen to compromise the core thing wild salmon need to survive: clean, free-flowing rivers. The good news is that we can choose to do things differently in Alaska and British Columbia, where we still have intact habitat with thriving wild salmon populations.
At the World Salmon Forum in Seattle this week, scientists and practitioners will discuss how to sustain and restore remaining wild salmon populations. While these conversations take place, government agencies in the U.S. and Canada are actively advancing some of the world’s largest and riskiest mines despite peer-reviewed science showing that these mines would have permanent adverse impacts on the environment, wild salmon and local people. These permitting decisions must be based on credible risk assessments — not on politics, as they seem to be now.
In the U.S., the Environmental Impact Statement process is the “gold standard” for assessing risks mining developments pose to the quality of the human environment. However, this process is only as good as the science that informs it. This has never been truer than in Alaska’s Bristol Bay — home of the world’s largest wild salmon fishery — where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing the EIS process for the highly controversial proposed Pebble Mine. The Army Corps recently concluded that the Pebble Mine posed no risks to the rivers of this region, though their draft EIS was so flawed that other federal agencies publicly criticized its inadequacies. The Department of Interior said the draft EIS was so deficient that it “precludes meaningful analysis,” and Alaska’s U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski expressed that “the Corps’ DEIS has failed to meet [her] standard of a robust and rigorous process.” Unless Congress intervenes, the Army Corps says it will make a final permitting decision in early 2020.
Meanwhile, British Columbia is promoting numerous mines in the headwaters of the transboundary Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers — the region’s top salmon producers — without defensible scientific assessments of cumulative risks, which extend into Southeast Alaska. The political process that oversees mining regulation in B.C. is exemplified by the collapse of the Mount Polley mine’s “state-of-the-art” tailings dam that released 6.6 billion gallons of waste into the Fraser River watershed in 2014. Just six months later, that same company, Imperial Metals, began operations at the massive Red Chris mine on the Stikine River — with the same waste storage design, except exponentially larger. Imperial Metals is also the same company that recently applied for an exploratory mining permit in the headwaters of the Skagit River — critical for the southern resident orcas.
History and science make clear that mines of this scale cannot be operated without substantial damage to water quality and fish habitat. And this damage should be considered irreparable and permanent, unlike the propaganda espoused by mining proponents arguing that they would never develop a project if it posed serious risks to humans or the environment. Apparently the mining industry’s history of permanent damage to ecosystems around the world is somehow irrelevant when evaluating new projects.
We hope that the conversations at the World Salmon Forum spark a larger dialogue about the need for scientifically-based, rigorous environmental impact assessments of mining development in salmon watersheds. And we hope that elected officials on both sides of the border are listening. The U.S. and Canada have made huge strides toward developing the legal and political frameworks for protecting ecosystems and water over the last century. Are we willing to tolerate the current political retreat from the safeguards our societies have worked so hard to construct? Or will we use science to help create a safer and more certain future for not just wild salmon, but also ourselves?