First, we learned that Americans love to eat salmon more than ever, with most of the wild catch coming from Alaska. Then, the Alaska jobs numbers for commercial fishing were released, showing that jobs grew last year to a level not seen since 2000, with Bristol Bay comprising 98 percent of them. And, the cherry on top: The Alaska Department of Fish and Game released its extraordinary sockeye forecast for Bristol Bay’s 2015 season. In it, the agency estimates that nearly 54 million salmon will return to the rivers of Bristol Bay next summer.
This has all occurred after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came to Alaska last summer to receive public input on its proposal to protect Bristol Bay. After 60 days of public comments, 99 percent of the 650,000 people who submitted comments to EPA supported action to protect Bristol Bay. Alaskans are ready to finalize these protections as quickly as possible and look forward to many strong fishing seasons to come, with Pebble Mine finally considered an ill-conceived idea of the past.
Pebble has also been in the news a lot lately, in light of the above certainly, but also as a result of the three lawsuits brought by the Pebble Partnership. These are clear and desperate attempts to derail or delay the protection Alaskans have requested for Bristol Bay. The Empire and Alaska Journal of Commerce even published an editorial that grossly overemphasized the implications of a recent decision by Judge Holland to issue an injunction to the EPA to temporarily halt progress on Clean Water Act protections for Bristol Bay. The court did not state Pebble was “likely” to prevail on the merits of its claim, as expressed in the editorial.
The court dismissed two claims but allowed a third one because it raised a question serious enough to justify further litigation. The court ordered Pebble to amend its complaint, apparently because its four Washington D.C. and New York City lawyers, plus one from Anchorage, wrote a 138-page claim so confusing that it required re-writing. The court also ordered the defendants to file a motion to dismiss the amended complaint. The court will decide the merits of the amended complaint in 2015.
As for the separate question of the science, it, for example, cannot be seriously disputed that sulfuric acid will result at Pebble without safeguards. Pebble will require a dam to hold back its toxic tailings lake. However, the Mount Polley dam failure in British Columbia, along with other dam failures in the United States and around the world, provide persuasive evidence that the danger of a dam failure is real and poses an unacceptable risk of harm to the Bristol Bay fishery. Even assuming a properly functioning mine, Pebble will result in the destruction of at least 55 miles and as many as 87 miles of salmon streams from the mine pit, waste rock piles and tailings storage facilities alone. In its proposed determination, EPA set the bar at 5 miles, which to many people in Bristol Bay is still too much to trade.
If it had its way, Pebble would have you believe that the EPA secretly colluded with “anti-mine” conspirators to fix the chemical equation for sulfuric acid, the Mount Polley dam failure and the salmon stream loss connected with Pebble. Pebble only wants science that will demonstrate the value of the minerals in the ground, not science that calls out the risks. With all the indicators for just how well Bristol Bay is doing (54 million indicators, to be exact), it seems like a no-brainer that this fishery would be protected from mining interests. However, Pebble Partnership, its lawyers and other Pebble Mine supporters, including some of our elected leaders, are determined to play a high-risk game with our salmon and livelihoods, which are not theirs to gamble.
We know, without a doubt, that Pebble Mine poses an unacceptable risk of harm to our fishery. Bristol Bay residents have been aware of this for over a decade, and the disastrous spill at the Mount Polley mine did nothing to dissuade our concerns. Even without a major failure, we know our markets would suffer from the mere existence of sulfuric acid, ammonium nitrate (blasting), and cyanide in the heart of Bristol Bay. For these reasons among others, we’re calling on our state and national leaders to pay attention to what we’ve been saying so clearly, for so long, and join us in urging the EPA to safeguard Bristol Bay’s 14,000 fish-based jobs and a salmon centered way of life.
Alaskans have spoken on this issue time and time again. We commented in favor of the EPA’s proposed protections more than we ever have on anything. Then, we voted to further protect Bristol Bay from the construction of Pebble Mine on Nov. 4 through a statewide ballot measure. Through nearly a decade of studies, lawsuits, hearings and comment periods, we have shown up, turned out and spoken up. We’re not letting up on this issue because it’s important and we’re overwhelmingly in agreement: Pebble Mine has no place in Bristol Bay.
We are honored and grateful that the EPA took notice of our unique resource and drew similar conclusions about the strength and necessity of our fishery. Now we hope we’ll see a final decision from them as soon as possible.
To Gov. Bill Walker, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Senator-elect Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska: we hope you’re listening. We hope you will act based on the fact that this land has provided for us for generations and continues to do so, season after season. Our traditions, our salaries and in many ways our lives, revolve around the salmon in Bristol Bay. Please do not jeopardize the EPA’s ability to protect our fishery by listening to the outspoken few who advocate for a Canadian corporation willing to tarnish our land and pollute our waters, rather than the interests of our community and our salmon.
Leaders, please do not jeopardize the largest sector of jobs in Alaska in favor of short-term profits. Citizens, thank you for looking at the facts and supporting our efforts to protect this place.
• Joe Faith is a commercial and subsistence fisherman and attorney from Dillingham.