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My Turn: Pebble is not worth the risk it poses to Bristol Bay

Posted: October 18, 2012 - 12:00am

In anticipation of the various permit applications for the Pebble Mine, Region X of the EPA has begun an early assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed and I applaud them for it.

I have been a resident of Alaska for 52 years. While I am now retired, in my career I was a very successful business man. Among other things, I developed the Taku Glacier Lodge. I mention this only because I would like it known that I am not a person who is generally opposed to resource development. Resource development, including mining, is necessary for our modern society. But what is different about the Pebble Mine is its sheer scale, the inherent risks involved, and the fact that it is situated smack in the middle of the Bristol Bay watershed.

EPA’s website poses the following three questions:

Is the Bristol Bay salmon fishery the one of a kind, world class fishery that it is depicted to be?

What are the potential impacts to Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery from large‐scale development activities such as hard rock mining?

Are there technologies or practices that will mitigate these impacts?

To answer these questions, I expect that EPA will engage in elaborate and detailed scientific studies. Yet one need not dig too deeply in order to answer the first two questions. The size and importance of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery is well known and well documented. Here are some well-established facts about the Bristol Bay salmon fishery:

(1) Nearly one-third of all earnings from Alaska salmon fishing come from the Bristol Bay fishery. This is also the largest Alaska fishery in terms of the number of permit holders.

(2) A total of 5,540 full time equivalent jobs are supported by the Bristol Bay wild salmon ecosystems. Three-fourths of these jobs are in the commercial fish sector and about one-fourth in recreation.

(3) Bristol Bay accounts for nearly 40 percent of the salmon catch for the entire nation.

All of this is at risk if the Pebble Mine is developed. I understand that the Pebble Mine Partnership has engaged in an expensive baseline study of the Bristol Bay ecosystem. I also recognize that the Partnership is claiming that the mine would be developed using the best technology and that the mine can be developed without undue risk to the environment and particularly the salmon fishery. But unfortunately the Partnership has yet to establish any real credibility on the issue. The track record of large-scale copper mining is not good.

The Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah is an open pit copper mine. It is the deepest open pit mine in the world. It is also the second most polluting mine in the U.S. by toxic releases. The Bingham Canyon Mine is owned by the Rio Tinto Group, one of the partners in the Pebble Mine Partnership. The Bingham Canyon mine may be an example of where the mine owners are doing as much as they can to minimize or prevent contamination of surface streams and groundwater. But try as they may, it appears that surface water and groundwater pollution is inevitable, especially as the scale of the mine increases, and Pebble would be the largest copper mine in the world.

The Partnership’s website touts that the mine would offer 1,000 full-time jobs and 2,000 construction phase jobs. But the Bristol Bay fishery supports at least 5,540 jobs which would be at risk if the fishery is harmed by the effects of mining. Indeed, a fisherman’s organization that has been formed to protect the bay from mining claims that the fishery supports 12,000 jobs.

I believe the public at large has already come to recognize that the risks of Pebble outweigh the benefits. Last fall the citizens of the Lake Peninsula Borough voted in favor of an initiative that effectively would not allow the Pebble Mine. Our governor and the mine owners immediately sued to nullify the vote. But while they may win the legal battle, I submit that they have already lost the fight in the court of public opinion. That fight was lost on the merits.

• Maas is a Juneau resident.

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