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EPA's Pebble watershed assessment validates Bristol Bay fears

Bob Waldrop

People who live or work in Bristol Bay remember the day they heard about the proposed Pebble Mine. We remember where we were, who we were with, maybe even what we ate that day.

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For fishermen and Native Alaskans who depend on the Bristol Bay salmon fishery for work and subsistence, the idea of putting the largest mine in North America in the headwaters of our spawning streams was unthinkable. Bristol Bay salmon generate around $500 million in annual economic benefits and over 12,000 seasonal jobs.

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The Yupik people have been fishing in Bristol Bay for 10,000 years, and the commercial fishing has thrived there since 1880. Jobs and livelihoods depend on Bristol Bay salmon, a self-sustaining resource that requires little but good stewardship to continue in perpetuity.

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Addressing these concerns, the federal government just released a science-based Watershed Assessment which looks at the likely impacts of large-scale projects such as the proposed Pebble Mine. It validates our initial fears.

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The release of this report also marks the beginning of an established process to obtain public input and have credentialed scientists perform a peer review. This early stage of what looks to be a long process may be the only time that citizens and scientists will be asked to comment on this basic question:

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Should we dig and blast North America’s largest mine in an area hosting the world’s most valuable wild salmon fishery?

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While this Watershed Assessment will do much to clarify whether or not building the Pebble Mine is the right thing to do ecologically, it won’t by itself dictate the fate of the project. It does, however, give us a comprehensive sense of the natural resources at stake, and the real risks posed by hard rock mining on a large scale. Given the magnitude of the project and the importance of the fishery, we must be diligent in analyzing the long-term implications of generating up to 11 billion tons of toxic mine waste, and disposing of it behind massive earthen dams atop what is now productive fish habitat.

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Since the Pebble Partnership first began talking about the mine, we have been confident that a thorough review of the economic and environmental consequences of the project would conclude what we’ve known in our minds (and felt in our hearts) from the start -- mining on this scale and commercial salmon fishing are incompatible in Bristol Bay. This draft Watershed Assessment, like other scientific reports, confirms that the mine will indeed have potentially devastating impacts on salmon spawning and rearing habitat.

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Never has a mine like Pebble been attempted in such salmon-rich and water-saturated habitat. Large-scale gold and copper mines in the U.S. are notorious for generating water pollution during operations and long after they are closed. The damage at other mines costs federal taxpayers millions every year, and expensive efforts to restore lost salmon runs have largely failed -- even under relatively benign adversity.

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The inescapable truth about Pebble Mine is that after a few decades you run out of metal to dig up, leaving behind a site that will be toxic forever. If we continue to responsibly steward our renewable salmon resources, the salmon will come back year after year after year.

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Alaska is a resource-rich state, and we thrive by wise use of those resources, whether they are buried in the ground or swimming upstream. We believe the Watershed Assessment makes one thing completely clear: We cannot have both industrial-scale mining and the world’s biggest wild sockeye fishery in Bristol Bay. We must choose. For at least 80 percent of Bristol Bay commercial fishermen and local residents, the choice is clear.

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The EPA has the authority to restrict the disposal of mine waste in Bristol Bay’s waters if science shows the waste would result in adverse and unavoidable harm the fishery. After reading the draft report we believe that the science corroborates common sense. We believe that North America’s largest open pit mine cannot coexist with the world’s most productive salmon habitat.

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Bob Waldrop is the Executive Director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRSDA), 1,850 entrepreneurs harvesting approximately 85 percent of the Bristol Bay commercial salmon harvest. He is expressing his own views here.

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