July 16, 2007
Our oceans are facing pressures from all sides. In addition to commercial bottom trawling, pollution, and climate change, here, in southwestern Alaska, Bristol Bay and its residents are preparing to deal with another destructive threat – the proposed Pebble Mine. This mine would be located in the heart of the Bristol Bay watershed. As it is now proposed, it would have the largest dam in the world. Larger than the massive Hoover Dam. And to top it off, it would be an earthen dam, constructed from compacted soils, not concrete. And don’t forget, Alaska is located along the ‘ring of fire’ – an earthquake prone region that has experienced major earthquake events within the past 50 years. This open pit mine, a sore on the landscape, would be so large it would be visible from space.
According to polls, regional opposition to this mine has topped 75% and seems to be growing. As we arrived in Bristol Bay this weekend virtually every fishing boat we passed had an anti-Pebble Mine flag. There are similar signs all over town in Dillingham, stickers on cars, and constant conversation about this proposed project. Not just a threat to the ‘environment,’ this mine has the potential to destroy some of the most important fish habitat in the world and pollute the clean water that other animals and humans in the area use. The Bristol Bay fishery supports local subsistence practices, guiding businesses, and local lodges. Some people support the mine and the jobs it will bring to the region and from one perspective, they really can’t be blamed. The depressed economy of southwestern Alaska and the incredibly high cost of living has put some people, I believe, in a no-win situation. Short-term (Mines don’t produce forever.) employment possibilities (How many workers will actually be Alaskans? We’ve seen this before…) and unknown environmental dangers, versus a healthy watershed and all that comes with it, but perhaps no regular source of income.
This project would be located on State of Alaska lands and the state coffers have much to gain. We all hope that the state will not only make sound, science-based decisions regarding the mine, but that it will also take into account the best interests of all of the people of Alaska – especially those who have the most to lose.
The company proposing this massive project, Northern Dynasty, is not exactly the environmental protector it purports to be. In fact, Northern Dynasty has even written in an annual report that it is unlikely they would or could be subject to U.S. legal proceedings for any environmental damages because they are not a U.S. based or run company. We have all heard the common refrain about how the United States, including Alaska, has some of the strictest environmental standards in the world to protect our fragile environment. That may be the case, though some would debate whether they are strong enough or if they even matter if their isn’t proper and consistent enforcement. But really, one only has to look north to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields and the Trans Alaska Pipeline. You may not read about it in your local paper, or hear about it on the news, but there hundreds of oil spills there each year. The Fort Knox Gold Mine outside Fairbanks has just been give permission, by the State, to use cyanide leaching techniques. The Kensington Mine project, near Juneau, was given permission by the Federal government, to dump 210,000 gallons a day of their mine waste directly into a lake, a lake that the company would turn into a tailings holding area (this decision was reversed by the 9th Circuit Court). A proposed bridge across Knik Arm in Anchorage (one of the so-called “bridges to nowhere” ) may have serious negative impacts on the distinctive and already endangered local population of Beluga whales. The list goes on… It looks like neither the State nor Northern Dynasty can honestly say with any real degree of confidence that there won’t be major ecosystem damaging impacts from the mine, and their track records aren’t very encouraging either.
We all need to do something to make sure the State and the world knows what Alaskans want: long-term existence of a productive and vital system, not short-term profit for a few and the potential destruction of this watershed.