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Empire Editorial: Mount Polley breach a thunderous warning

Posted: August 12, 2014 - 12:00am

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has become a cause célèbre for environmentalists nationwide.

Southeast Alaska is far less remote and barren — and yet, for some reason its protection is not yet a national issue.

It needs to be, and now.

Grand and gorgeous, this portion of The Last Frontier — home to key salmon and other habitats — is under threat of potential devastation today.

As Rivers Without Borders puts it, “at the headwaters of a tributary of the Unuk River, just upstream from Misty Fiords National Monument in Alaska,” a proposed massive open-pit and underground mine known as KSM — Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell — threatens to despoil the frontier and endanger pristine habitats that we humans have come to not only awe, but also depend upon for life.

If that precarious balance weren’t already enough in focus, the startling breach of the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia on Aug. 4 should have jolted us all awake.

Already being compared with the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Mount Polley breach unleashed some 10 million cubic meters of tailings water, and 4.5 million cubic meters of fine toxic tailings into lakes and rivers in the Fraser River watershed.

Ominously, the Empire reported, the Fraser River, as of last week uncovered by water quality warnings, was nonetheless “expecting a run of up to 3 million sockeye salmon in about two weeks.”

Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes said in a press release that the Mount Polley disaster is “a stark reminder why we need much more study, stronger guarantees from Canada and more engagement by the U.S. and Alaska before mines like KSM go ahead, to ensure our cultural and traditional resources are protected.”

Absolutely. The council could not be more right.

We agree wholeheartedly with one association’s call that Canada put an immediate halt to new mine permits in the transboundary river region until the Mount Polley incident is thoroughly studied and understood.

That call should echo throughout this abundantly blessed nation. And it should lead to more cross-border cooperation on these vital, life-and-death matters.

We certainly understand Canada’s desire to make use of its natural resources, but that shouldn’t and cannot be allowed to come at the cost of Alaska’s. Runoff could threaten not only salmon waterways and the fishing industry, but it could also threaten a way of life that, for some, reaches back thousands of years.

The KSM mine, featuring one open pit that would rival the world’s deepest, is just one of a handful of impending mines in transborder watersheds that have growing numbers of people alarmed.

Nor does it help that, while Canada stands to gain economically from the mining rush, Alaskans appear to assume the bulk of the considerable environmental risk.

We urge Alaskans, all concerned Americans, and our leaders from Juneau to Washington to press our Canadian friends to rethink their headlong plunge into pits that could easily endanger pristine and life-giving waterways.

Our land, our livelihoods and our God-given stewardship over the most beautiful ecosystems on Earth demand no less.

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Art Petersen
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Art Petersen 08/12/14 - 12:43 pm
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Good Call.

Thanks, Empire editorial board. ... Probably there are more causes to this disaster, but one most primary came as a warning by an inspector beforehand, a simple case of putting more in than was taken out. In part one cause was ignoring simple physics and the limits of basic engineering. So "Why" does it take until after the disaster occurs to pay attention? As in the case of the Deep Water Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, other causes, ones harder to discern, are also in play, such as meeting schedules for production quotas and earning bonuses. So in the future, what? There's KSM. There's Pebble, at the headwaters of one of the world's greatest fisheries. If the Mount Polley breach is not to be the first of even worse disasters, this Good Call by the Empire will need to be repeated.

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