IN THE rivers, streams and wetlands of southwest Alaska, tens of millions of bright pink fish swim upstream every year to spawn. The watershed area around Bristol Bay is one of the last unspoiled habitats in the world, home to moose, bears, caribou and, yes, sockeye salmon. It’s also now at the center of one of the nation’s largest conservation battles.
That’s because the area is also rich in other natural resources; billions of dollars sit under the ground there in one of the largest finds of copper, gold and molybdenum in the United States. A consortium of firms wants to extract those metals in a massive — and, perhaps, massively profitable — mining operation. The final proposal for the so-called Pebble Mine isn’t out yet. But the idea would be to construct a huge pit mine, waste-storage areas, processing plants, ground-transportation facilities, a power plant and a new deep-water port. The companies say they can do all that with minimal environmental damage, employing a team of engineers to make the facilities safe. And, they say, the damage they do cause can be offset with replacement habitat they will build elsewhere.
Unsurprisingly, conservation groups and locals have banded together to stop the development. They say that, though the mine might create some jobs and bring infrastructure, it is inherently dangerous to the extremely productive fishery, which has economic, ecological and cultural value. The area’s waters are connected through wetlands and underground flows, making it difficult to contain contamination. And they cite a recent analysis from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that sounded discouraging notes on the potential impacts of a large mine in the region. For example, dams storing large volumes of “tailings” — mine waste — would have to hold up in perpetuity. If a dam eventually failed, the effects on salmon habitat would be “severe,” the report predicted. The conservationists want the EPA to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to reject the whole project now, instead of continuing with government reviews.
The EPA’s preliminary analysis is, indeed, worrisome, and the environmentalists are right to insist that the landscape be preserved. If it’s a choice between habitat and mine, habitat should win.
Yet the mining companies insist that there is no such choice. They can, for example, build extremely high and strong tailings dams, engineering the whole project beyond what standard industry practices would dictate. All they want, they say, is a fair and thorough evaluation of their claims. That is reasonable. If complete federal reviews find that the companies can’t protect the fishery, regulators can reject the project. But, given the potential economic value of the mine, they should hear the companies out.
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