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Bristol Bay is no place to experiment: Assessment shows Pebble mine would be bad for Alaska

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Posted: Sunday, May 26, 2013 12:00 am

Community perspective

When the delegates to Alaska’s Constitutional Convention gathered in Fairbanks during the cold November of 1955, they set out to craft what they knew would be an experimental document. Their work proved exceptional and has stood the test of time — our constitution expresses Alaskan values, imbued with the concept of an owner-state and mandated development of Alaska’s resources.

In many ways, Alaska was — and still is — a grand experiment. But our founding mothers and fathers would almost certainly not approve of the ways in which Alaska’s resources are now being experimented with, turning our valuable fishing and mining industries into a Petri dish for foreign developers to test their new technologies.

Before we go any further, let’s be clear: We are lifelong conservatives. Mark works an oil job on the North Slope, and Doug is a year-round commercial fisherman and mariner working both in the fisheries and in the oil industry. We both fish Bristol Bay in the summers and are passionately pro-responsible development. Heck, Mark’s snowmachined the Iron Dog three times and Doug has been working on offshore oil exploration in the Arctic for the last four years. Let’s put it this way, we both drive pickup trucks and don’t hug trees. We’re proud of that. And we are also proud to oppose Pebble Mine.

Raising our families in Alaska, we understand the need for a stable economic future here. The future of our state depends on good decision-making now.     

The Bristol Bay fishery supports a rich culture and directly employs some 14,000-plus individuals. In fact, Alaska’s fisheries collectively remain the largest employer in the state — creating even more jobs than our crucial oil and gas industry. Our fisheries are the envy of the world. A recent study showed an annual input into the American economy of $1.5 billion dollars from Bristol Bay. With Pebble’s suggested 50-to-100-year extraction scenario, it’s proposed development creates a large risk with little return for our state and our nation. 

In our view, the two foreign companies wishing to dig Pebble Mine do not have Alaska’s best interests in mind. They will either be using traditional mining techniques that have a 100 percent historical failure rate, or they are counting on a process that is experimental at best. They want to put one of the world’s largest open-pit mines smack-dab in the middle of what is indisputably one of the most complicated hydrological, geological and seismic networks in the world. This is not the place for experimentation. 

The largest open pit mine in the United States is Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah, located in a dry climate close to Salt Lake City. It has polluted 72 square miles of the aquifers beneath it and is only a third of the size of the ore body that Pebble Limited Partnership has told shareholders is mineable at Pebble. If that’s hard to fathom, consider this: The project just got even larger on May 2, when Pebble Limited Partnership purchased an additional 85,000-plus acres of claims from a company named Full Metal.

For years, Alaskans  —  ourselves included  —  have objected to federal intervention in our state. Unfortunately the State of Alaska has turned a deaf ear to our concerns despite years of imploring the state to ensure better protection for fisheries in Bristol Bay. So make no mistake: It is at the request of Alaskans, namely commercial fishing groups, sportsmen, tribes and Bristol Bay Native Corp. that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been asked to the table.  

To be clear, we have asked the agency to help us uphold our right to clean water, as promised in the Clean Water Act and to restrict activities in the Bristol Bay Watershed that conflict with clean water and wild salmon habitat. If the promises made by the companies involved have merit, then further scrutiny of their intentions should be welcomed.

After more than two years of study, peer review and public hearings, EPA just released a revised version of its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. The findings are scientifically unassailable and build a clear case for why this project would be a bad move for our state. 

We have asked EPA to act now to provide certainty for us and for Pebble. The fact is there is more than enough data that has been released by the companies themselves to understand the location, size and geochemical makeup of the deposit. It’s time for the developers to be truthful about the facts and engage in some honest conversation about their project.

We join the overwhelming majority of those from Southwest Alaska in opposing development of the Pebble deposit. Mining has an important place in this state but the margin for error in Bristol Bay is much narrower than in other areas. The size, type and location of the deposit are what make Pebble so dangerous.

Alaska was designed to be an experiment — our constitution was (and is) on the cutting edge of liberty, justice and what it means to exemplify personal responsibility. But that doesn’t mean that the development of Alaska’s vast resources should have to be experimental too. Let’s demand better from our elected leaders. Together we can ensure that Alaska’s future is even brighter than its past — our founding mothers and fathers deserve nothing less.

Mark Niver, of Anchorage, has commercially fished in Bristol Bay for more than 30 years. He and his sons spend the summer on the F/V Surrender. Doug Morgan, of Anchorage, is a lifelong Alaskan and second-generation Bristol Bay fisherman for more than 30 years. Doug has two children who will join him soon on the F/V Miss Emma. 

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