Bonnie Gestring: A gold mine by a salmon fishery is a terrible idea

(Marc Lester | Anchorage Daily News via AP file photo) Bristol Bay Reserve Association Board member Mike LaRussa, Bristol Bay Native Association President/CEO Ralph Andersen, Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association Executive Director Andy Wink, United Tribes of Bristol Bay Deputy Director Lindsay Layland, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation President and CEO Norm Van Vactor, and Robin Samuelson of Bristol Bay Native Corporation, make statements at the Federal Courthouse in Anchorage, Alaska on Oct. 8, 2019. A proposed gold and copper mine at the headwaters of the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery in Alaska would cause "unavoidable adverse impacts," the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in a letter to the developer released Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. The corps is asking the backers of Pebble Mine to come up with a mitigation plan within 90 days for nearly 3,000 acres of land and nearly 200 miles of streams it says could be affected if the controversial mine moves forward.

In Alaska, what supports 14,000 jobs, generates $1.5 billion annually and sustains the region’s indigenous communities, just as it has for millennia?

The answer is Bristol Bay’s wild salmon fishery, and it is no exaggeration to say it is the world’s most productive. Every year, some 40-60 million salmon return to the bay’s headwaters.

Yet in late July, the Army Corps of Engineers gave the proposed gold and silver Pebble Mine the go-ahead in its final environmental review. For the Trump administration, it’s been full speed ahead even though opposition continues to gain momentum.

More than 80 percent of Bristol Bay residents are against it. Prominent jewelers like Tiffany & Co., Ben Bridge and Zale’s have expressed their opposition to the Pebble Mine and vowed not to use any gold extracted from it. Even Donald Trump Jr. opposes the mine.

Commercial fisherman, churches, restaurants, seafood processors, hunters and anglers, Earthworks, the Wild Salmon Center and grocery-store companies all support protection of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery over large-scale mining. And nobody has been as steadfast in their opposition, or stands to lose as much, as the Native tribes who live around this magnificent bay.

“We are salmon people,” said Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, when she testified before a Congressional committee last year. “But salmon are more than food for us. Salmon are central to our cultural identity, our spirituality and our sacred way of life that has made us who we are for thousands of years in the Bristol Bay region.”

In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency completed a scientific assessment and proposed safety limits on disposing mine waste in Bristol Bay waters to ensure that salmon wouldn’t be harmed by mining. But in its evaluation of three possible scenarios, the EPA found that even the smallest mine would result in “unacceptable adverse effects.”

And what does “small” mean when talking about a massive open pit and tailings dam for storing 1.1 billion tons of mine waste? There would also be a 270-megawatt power plant, a 188-mile long natural gas pipeline that crosses Cook Inlet, an 82-mile transportation corridor, and a port on the Alaska coast. And it’s worth noting that Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., the Canadian company behind the mine, has promised its shareholders that Pebble will inevitably expand to its full size, thanks to subsequent permit expansions.

In any case, the Trump administration withdrew the proposed safety limits in 2019, and the mine has been fast-tracked through the environmental review process, led by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Yet state and federal experts have repeatedly critiqued the adequacy of the environmental review. The chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure recently called for a delay in the release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement due to the Corp’s failure to properly consult with tribes.

Then in late August, two major events: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reversed its July go-ahead and gave mine operators 90 days to explain how they would offset “unavoidable adverse impacts” to more than 3,200 acres of wetlands. Reuters reports that the next day, shares in the company owning the mine fell by 25% as investors weighed in. In addition, Alaska’s two Republican Senators came out against the mine.

The final environmental review predicts a mind-boggling variety of impacts to the Bristol Bay watershed. One example: permanent damage to over 100 miles of rivers and streams and 2,000 acres of wetlands. I can’t think of any other mine in North America — and perhaps the world — that would have such a devastating effect on clean water.

The Bristol Bay salmon fishery is a renewable resource; the legacy of the Pebble Mine promises perpetual pollution.

The ore will likely be shipped overseas to Asia, while the lasting impacts stay in Bristol Bay. In contrast, if the pristine water and wild salmon habitat of the watershed gain protection, the fishery can continue to feed our nation and power our economy forever.

It’s hard to imagine a more irresponsible mining project than the Pebble Mine. The silver lining: There’s still time for Congress to act before a permit to mine is issued this fall, and for mine opponents to be heard, loud and clear. This mine must be stopped.

Bonnie Gestring | Writers on the Range

Bonnie Gestring is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She lives in Montana, works as northwest program director for Earthworks, and has been reviewing mining projects for 20 years.