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Mt. Polley dam failure testifies to the peril of Pebble

Norm Van Vactor
OPINION: Bristol Bay salmon runs are are too valuable to risk for Pebble. Pictured: aerial view of a Pebble prospect work camp. Bill Roth

Bristol Bay is about salmon, and one of the few fisheries of its kind remaining in the world. This is an indisputable fact I’ve witnessed firsthand over my almost 40-year career in the fishery business in the bay. In my current capacity as President/CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. I remain, more than ever, committed to the economic health of our region.

Throughout the years, I have witnessed the immense economic engine generated from the annual salmon run swimming into the bay. More recently, I have witnessed and welcomed the positive role the Environmental Protection Agency has played in helping to protect Alaska’s economic and cultural resource, after communities and tribal organizations called out for help, the very same call that went unheeded by our current state leaders.

Bristol Bay alone boasts the most valuable and largest salmon fishery remaining in the world (yes, I said world) typically supplying almost half of the world’s wild sockeye. In 2010, commercial fishing, which includes harvesting, processing, and retailing bay salmon, created $1.5 billion in value across the United States. In addition, the fishery supported 14,000 fishing jobs and brought Americans $500 million in income in the 2010 season.

Summer after summer, millions of sockeye return home to the bay with no construction, exploration, or impact management needed. We could use more jobs, just not Pebble mine jobs. We can’t afford the risks to build it. Pebble Partnership promises they can build a mine that will not harm salmon. To many, this seems disingenuous, especially in light of the recent tailings dam failure at Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia’s Fraser River system. The catastrophic breach, releasing toxic tailings, has poisoned the water in their region. The Canadian mine is much, much smaller that Pebble is proposed to be. Due to the size of the Pebble mine and the type of resource to be mined, copper and gold, it is clear this mine cannot coexist safely with salmon. Clearly, fish and fishing communities lose when toxic tailings are involved.

Imagine, if Pebble were allowed to be built at the proposed size and scope and when the waterways would become affected, as they certainly will, envision the day Pebble operators pack up and leave. They will have extracted a mineral for their already-full coffers while burying and flooding our land under a 700-foot wall damming water full of toxins, which would remain there forever. They would have destroyed our salmon run, the last of its magnitude in the world. Partnership employees would be move back to the Lower 48, while area residents and fisherman would be left to fight for the few jobs remaining or move away. Meanwhile local people, whose ancestors were the first to inhabit this great land would be left helpless as their generations-old salmon traditions and land will have vanished due to greed and short-sighted economic planning.

Such is the picture I cannot bear to consider, and it is the reason I wholeheartedly support the EPA’s efforts to limit the scope of the mine, placing protections for salmon without turning away responsible mining interests that can provide protections for our land and guard our water safely. 

Please make yourself aware of the facts about our incredible Alaska region known as Bristol Bay and our national treasure -- our renewable salmon resource. The people of the bay have our own varied sets of challenges, but we are like-minded when it comes to protecting a resource and way of life that has served and sustained our regions for hundreds of years. Bristol Bay will continue to sustain our communities if we do our part. If you agree that Alaska salmon are a unique resource worth protecting, please tell the EPA you support their proposed protections.

We would also like to put out the welcome mat to anyone who would like to visit the bay. Come see for yourselves the hard-working, salmon-loving Alaskans who call the bay home.

Norm Van Vactor is a longtime fisherman and current CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp.    

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com