Bristol Bay: It’s Time To Act

(Note: This article is from 2017 and has not been updated.)

Today and tomorrow, if you happen to be in Alaska (and nearby), you can go to a public meeting about an EPA rules change.  If you’re not one of the lucky few, you can still weigh in by email by clicking hereAnd you want to weigh in, even if you don’t know it yet.  So do all your friends, so Share this post.

This hasn’t gotten a lot of airtime, which surprises me a little.  CNN and the New York Times have tried, but what with the Las Vegas shooting, the NFL kneeling, and California burning, there’s enough disasters to occupy our attention.  And, because they’re (let’s face it) more in the entertainment business than that of keeping people informed these days, their management is keeping the cameras on the disaster spectacles.

They may have failed, but we haven’t.  This is your chance to avert a disaster before it happens.  So do it.  Click the link, dammit.

Oh, you want to know what it’s all about first?  Well, why didn’t you say so?  OK; read on and I’ll tell you.

Back fifteen or twenty years ago, a Canadian company decided that they wanted to build a massive mining complex to dig out copper and gold in the Bristol Bay watershed.  The deposit is truly vast, potentially the second most valuable in the world.  And it’s in the middle of bloody nowhere, some twenty miles from the nearest small village.  Billions of dollars worth of ore, just waiting to be dug out and refined.

Refined:  That’s the key here.  They’ve got to do that onsite, and they use some truly nasty chemicals to separate out the minerals.  Before that, they pulverize it all, which releases some far nastier stuff; palladium and rhenium are not to be taken lightly.  All of which would matter less were it not that this site is upstream of the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery — half a billion dollars worth of fish per year, and the best salmon in the world.

Would the mining really hurt the fishery?  Lake Iliamna, just downstream of the deposit, is drained by the Kvijack River, which has the largest red salmon run in the world.  Wild salmon are not particularly vulnerable to heavy metal toxicity, but they wouldn’t need to be if they were swimming in the stuff.  Right now, wild Alaskan salmon is about the least toxic commercial fish you can eat — and this would, inevitably, change.

The proposed Pebble Mine is far smaller than the original design, with no cyanide leaching plant (kind of important, that), a revamped truck route that involves fewer roads across the wetlands, and redesigned and strengthened tailings and leach pit dams.  All of this sounds like a pretty fair compromise, bowing to environmental concerns while still getting the metal out.

But there’s a problem.  The region was described (in a CNN article; read it here) by Washington fisheries professor Ray Hilborn thus:  “…The reason it’s such a productive salmon place is, it’s basically this giant gravel bed.  But that also means it’s almost impossible to contain water.  It’s just a giant sponge.  The idea you could store highly toxic waste (from a mine) forever behind a dam is just ridiculous.”  And that’s not just his opinion; over a decade of scientific study led to the 2014 EPA pre-emptive ban.

So we’re talking about the probable loss of a massive salmon fishery, plus irreparable damage to the entirety of Bristol Bay’s massive fishing industry — and you’ll notice I’m not even mentioning less tangible things like the culture of the local tribes or tourism.  That’s up against a $300 billion or more total income from mining, and to a businessman, it’s tough to tell the difference.

But Scott Pruitt, who runs the EPA, is not a businessman, at least not today.  He’s a conservationist, and contrary to the media’s expectations, he listens to what local people have to say.  We’ve seen evidence of this in his proposed solutions to the Trump-ordered National Monuments review.  Well, the local people voted against massive mining in 2014; if this passes EPA review, the mining partnership plans to litigate against that as unconstitutional — and they just might win, even if not on the merits; courts have been bought before when billions were at stake.

And, since the salmon fishery is one of the few remaining sources of massive quantities of toxin-free food, you and I, wherever we are, are plenty local enough to weigh in.  You know me by now; I’m not some closed-minded fringe nutjob.  I’m all about intelligent debate and wise compromise.  You can trust me when I tell you that there is no available compromise here.

My friends, your opinion is important right now.  I’ve told you before that you have the power to make change; well, this, right here, is a way you can help fix the world.  Click the link; send an email; you’ve got ’till Tuesday the 17th.  Or don’t, and when this inevitably goes south, I’ll blame you.


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