Our view: Bristol Bay treasure

The Environmental Protection Agency's draft assessment on potential mining impacts in the Bristol Bay watershed concluded what common sense already told us -- mining a prospect like Pebble likely will kill some salmon habitat, even without an event like the catastrophic failure of a tailings dam.

Gov. Sean Parnell and Sen. Lisa Murkowski have said they won't trade fish for minerals. At the same time, Parnell, Murkowski and Sen. Mark Begich are skeptical of the EPA and absolutely oppose any invoking of Clean Water Act provisions to stop the mine before the state permitting process has run its course. For the record, the EPA says it has made no decision on any regulation.

But what the EPA report suggests is something that Gov. Parnell and Sens. Murkowski and Begich might prefer not to address -- that if Pebble and/or other, smaller claims in the watershed are mined, we will trade some fish for minerals. The question then is how much -- or how much control we'd actually have over the numbers of such a trade once that bargain was struck.

We know what we have in Bristol Bay and the waters that feed it -- the largest sockeye salmon fishery on the planet and a lot more. The Bristol Bay watershed not only supports the sockeye fishery but an abundance of all five Pacific salmon, plus rich freshwater fisheries, and healthy populations of bear, moose, caribou and birds. Commercial, sport and subsistence livelihoods -- and a way of life for dozens of Alaska Native communities -- depend on the health and stability of that watershed.

"The exceptional quality of the Bristol Bay watershed's fish populations can be attributed to several factors, the most important of which is perhaps the watershed's high-quality, diverse aquatic habitats, which are untouched by human-engineered structures and flow-management controls."

That simple statement from the EPA draft covers the state of the watershed. That won't be the state of the watershed if projects like Pebble and other claims go ahead. There will be flow control and engineering, and the potential for failures from pipelines carrying slurry to blocked culverts. Further, the need to monitor and control mine waste, roads and culverts will be with us decades after the ore is gone.

The governor and, to a lesser extent, our senators have tried to make EPA the issue here. Gov. Parnell, in particular, sought to block the EPA assessment on the eve of its release. Pebble Partnership's John Shively called the assessment speculative and "a federal intrusion."

What all this missed is that the debate over the Pebble prospect isn't about the EPA. Fed-bashing is a distraction.

What Alaskans need to know is simply this: Is the risk to one of the richest fisheries on earth and a magnificent, complex watershed that supports life from megafauna to the microscopic worth it? Do we want to take that chance?

The EPA's report isn't final. Public hearings will be held in a few weeks in Alaska and Seattle, and a final report is due in the fall.

But one thing the EPA report does make clear is the extraordinary richness of what Alaska has in the Bristol Bay watershed now. The burden of proof -- and it is a huge burden -- is on Pebble or any other group that wants to mine here. They don't get the benefit of the doubt. Alaska shouldn't risk a such a rich habitat for the promise of copper, gold and mitigation.

Most of the profit of copper and gold will go elsewhere.

And just how will mitigation improve on nature's work in this watershed?

That's the message we'd like to hear from Alaska's leaders.

BOTTOM LINE: EPA report serves its purpose, to lay out the stakes in Bristol Bay mining decisions.