Notes written to Alaska’s two senators on the subject of the Pebble mine proposal receive boilerplate responses in which they each express their neutrality and advise that we should all wait for the permit application process to run its course. Not allowing themselves to get pinned down on either side of this subject is fair enough, but the ‘process’ is not the game that is being played out here, and the corporate strategies of the Pebble Partnership are far more sophisticated than trotting through the prescribed steps of a “process.” Even if this were the case, the “process” has no possible outcome but to permit the proposal, because eventually all the is will be dotted and the ts crossed, the permit requirements satisfied and the permits granted.
Currently the mining companies are playing a waiting game, and they wait for the winds of the national political climate to blow their way. They have not made any applications because they don’t want to be in the position of having to defend the indefensible. The United States Senate is on record as proceeding with law and policy in an atmosphere of science denial, notably in energy, climate, and health. So neither the 70,000 pages of ‘science data’ that the companies claim to have but will not release, nor the genuine science of the EPA draft analysis will ultimately be a factor in the decision. What the companies are banking on is that when a conservative administration and a conservative legislative branch coincide, the Pebble proposal and a hundred like it will all be granted permits on the basis of jobs and the economy and the science and the ethics of a multitude of situations will be left to gather dust.
The Pebble Mine proposal is an ethical and an environmental Armageddon for the nation, in that order. It is an ethical Armageddon because it pits tens, even hundreds, of billions of dollars against the slow beat of time, the land, and the biosphere. It’s those old 30 pieces of silver, writ large. At the first public meeting held by the EPA in Seattle, two apparently unrelated Christian groups had representatives who separately made the argument that development of the Pebble mine would violate divine law because of the massive risk and destruction to regional ecology.
That the Pebble proposal is an environmental Armageddon is laid out pretty clearly in the EPA draft assessment. The EPA aside, a cursory glance at the consequences of heavy mining worldwide leaves no doubt as to the outcome. Having to do remediation and control in a fish and wetlands ecology for a thousand years is manifestly not in keeping with a corporate culture which makes decisions based on annual quarterly reports and month-by-month financials. The confrontation here between the environment of wildlife and clean waters vs. industrial mining is not an argument of technicalities or design or corporate promises. It is just a street fight in which money is power, money is speech, and money is influence. Thus you have the Pebble group spending on the order of $25 million on the effort to defeat a single ballot initiative in 2010. This spectacle shines a light on the nature of the fight, and the absurdity of “letting the process work.” The process is just smoke, mirrors and poisonous politics.
In 1963, ‘64, and ‘65 it was my privilege to be the only Caucasian in the king salmon fishery on the Lower Yukon River. There were some days from those years on the Lower Yukon that were so full of light that they still sparkle through the settling mist of 50 years of memory. Although it was the waning years of a world class system, it was still healthy enough to understand what had been before, and the young adults who taught me to fish still had a sense of their culture and their place. The collapse of the fishery there has been accompanied by relentless economic and social stress that foreshadows the fate of Bristol Bay under the influence of a generations-long industrial development. There will be no memory of big fish and sparkling waters in the waning days of the big mine. Instead we will have Detroit North, with bits and pieces of the illusive American dream being bulldozed into the consolidated wreckage of progress.
I make four arguments regarding Bristol Bay. First I join those who see that culture and place will be destroyed by the Pebble Mine. Basically Pebble bulldozers will push everything I know and love right out of the frame, regardless of corporate public relations babble.
Second, given the destruction or massive damage to every salmon system from the Sacramento to the Yukon, I argue that this last reasonably healthy large system should have the benefit of a sense of cumulative protection that has not been applied in any other individual case.
Third, I make an argument on the larger scale of interlocking world ecological systems. In an age of threatened or collapsing ecologies worldwide I urge permanent protection for this last great North American system.
But the forth and most important argument is that this confrontation, this choice of what will be the permanent future on a human time scale, is essentially a moral choice. This is technological man in the form of massive industrial corporate power vs. the slow beat of a sustainable harvest and the creatures we depend on for spirit and for sustenance.
Alaska’s senators and others in leadership, I understand this is a tough call. I ask that you step out of the ideological boxes in which the system constrains you. I ask you to lead instead of follow. Rise above the lowest common denominator of the injured and stumbling American political process. Help us save our battered and somewhat oil-stained souls from what looks to become an industrial nightmare and the end of anything resembling the old Alaska.
• Forrer is a Juneau resident.