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Proposed Pebble mine would make a great joke, but world isn't laughing

Joel Reynolds

Three foreign mining executives walk into a bar and say to anyone who’ll listen, 'We want to dig one of the largest open pit mines on Earth in the middle of Alaska’s world class wild salmon fishery. We promise not to hurt the fishery or interfere with the 22,000 jobs and $1.5 billion it generates each year. And one more thing: We’re going to leave 10 billion tons of contaminated waste in a pond held by earthen dams taller than the Three Gorges Dam in China -- forever.'

A good joke? Not a joke at all. In fact, this is the scheme that London-based Anglo-American and Rio Tinto, with their Canadian partner Northern Dynasty Minerals -- called the Pebble Partnership -- have in mind for southwestern Alaska -- a gold and copper mine two miles wide and a mile deep at the headwaters of the incomparable Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery.

Although this week, Pebble’s CEO John Shively and his small army of lobbyists were in Washington trying to persuade White House and members of Congress otherwise, Pebble Mine is quite simply one of the most reckless projects anywhere in the world today. Even major jewelers, led by Tiffany & Co., have opposed it -- because eventually it will contaminate the fishery and the global food source it provides, poison the people, communities, and economy of the region, and destroy one of the world’s vast, pristine wilderness areas.

But it can be stopped -- now. Nine Alaskan tribes have petitioned the EPA to pre-empt the Pebble Mine by prohibiting or restricting large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay headwaters. Their request is supported by a wide array of stakeholders in the region, including commercial and recreational fishermen, businessmen, developers, hunters, conservationists, and over 80 percent of the Alaska Natives in the region.

EPA has responded cautiously, first conducting a science-based assessment of the risks of large-scale mining in this pristine region -- an assessment being circulated for public comment through the end of June. According to EPA, it would have widespread and irreparable adverse consequences for the fishery even if it were operated flawlessly -- an assumption belied by the industry’s consistent record of contamination. Assuming Pebble would operate as actual mines have done, its impact would be devastating to the untouched salmon spawning waters of the region and the people and wildlife that depend on them.

The mining partnership, supported by Alaska’s governor, demands they be given a chance to prove that their assurances of safe operation, alongside a healthy fishery, are no joke, promising “this isn’t your grandfather’s mine.” They contend that EPA’s involvement is just the latest federal power grab, that the fate of the Bristol Bay watershed is a state affair -- unless of course you’re a foreign mining company or own shares in one.

No surprise there. And if you believe them, I have a blow-out preventer from the Gulf of Mexico I’d like to sell you.

On the merits, there is no question that EPA has the authority to do what the tribes have asked. The federal Clean Water Act is explicit: EPA can prohibit or restrict a proposed activity where it is likely to cause “unacceptable adverse effects” on local fisheries, waters, wildlife, and recreational resources. Here, the agency’s own risk assessment has documented that adverse effects are inevitable if large-scale mining is allowed in this sensitive, hydrologically complex region.

But EPA has rarely used this authority; indeed, in the 40-year history of the Clean Water Act, it has granted similar requests only a dozen times. EPA has viewed it as extraordinary -- applicable only in the most compelling circumstances, where the risk of harm is significant and beyond reasonable doubt. And there is every reason to expect the agency to apply a similarly strict standard today.

But no matter the standard, the tribes’ Bristol Bay petition deserves EPA action. Indeed, if there is a clearer case than this one for use of the agency’s authority to protect the resources enumerated by Congress, it has never been presented. The sheer size of the proposed Pebble Mine (and the long line of mining claims waiting behind it), and the undeniable importance of the fishery, water, and recreational resources at risk if mining is allowed, put this request in a class by itself. The interests of no one -- not even the mining companies’ economic interest in regulatory certainty -- will be served by allowing this threat to hang over the region and its people for decades.

Allowing the Pebble Mine to poison the world-class Bristol Bay fishery would be a tragedy of global proportions for future generations. If we let that happen, the only joke will be the claim that we did our very best to give them a world worth having. And they won’t be laughing.

Joel Reynolds is Western director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, based in Los Angeles.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.