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Gold vs. Salmon: Alaskan Politics Factor in Fight over Mammoth Mine
10/27/2008
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The New York Times probes the pungent politics undermining the fight to save the world’s biggest Salmon run… and many livelihoods.
by Craig Weatherby


A huge gold and metals mine is slated to open near pristine Alaskan rivers that host the world’s biggest wild sockeye Salmon runs.

Those sockeye runs begin and end in Bristol Bay: a once-obscure place newly famous for its connection to the Palin family (That's Governor Sarah Palin at left, working on a Bristol Bay salmon setnet skiff).

In addition to fabulously delicious, healthful salmon the Bristol Bay Salmon fishery provides some 17,000 jobs and $100 million to the Alaskan fishing industry, which includes many independent fishermen who migrate there each summer from the lower 48.

Folks concerned about the prospect of a salmon-threatening mine near Bristol Bay should know about a recent article in The New York Times.

The Pebble Mine would be one of the world’s largest, and its giant holding ponds would be filled with the kind of metals-contaminated water proven deadly to salmon survival.

And because the huge mine complex would sit smack in the center of the Bristol Bay watershed, independent geologists consider it all too likely that heavy metals and other toxins will reach and pollute key sockeye salmon rivers.

And that could destroy the world’s biggest source of sockeye, by far.

So we want to pass on word of this particularly incisive summary of the Pebble Mine battle, encompassing its status, politics, and prospects concisely and clearly.

The story includes sobering assessments by government scientists and a surprising slip of the tongue from the mine’s CEO that contradicts his company’s bland reassurances.

We recommend reading the full, eye-opening account: “Palin’s Hand Seen in Battle Over Mine in Alaska.

These troubling excerpts summarize the risks as seen by knowledgeable researchers:
  • “‘It [The Bristol Bay watershed] is one giant wetland, and no one really understands how it works,’ said Carol Ann Woody, a biologist who served on the Pebble advisory team for the United States Geological Survey and views the mine as a threat.”
  • “Rain falls in torrents, winter temperatures hit 50 below and a geologic fault—capable of producing catastrophic earthquakes—sits 30 miles away. The proposed mine could produce seven billion tons of toxic waste rock; even traces of copper can disable a salmon’s ability to navigate.”
  • “Mine officials have said they may need to build earthen walls the size of the Hoover Dam to contain a lake of toxic residue that would have to be tended forever. ‘In the short or the long run, it will have a disastrous effect,’ said Lance Trasky, who monitored the project until he retired as a senior supervisor with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.”
And the Times quoted John Shively, CEO of the lead Pebble Mine company, saying, “...it probably is possible to engineer something that is safe.”

His “probably” qualifier seems a revealing acknowledgement of the uncertainties… but even that slip underplays the geological unknowns, daunting containment challenges, and the fearsome consequences of failure.

You can read about Pebble Mine and view great mine-district photos by Erin McKittrick
which show some of what’s at stakeat her site, aktrekking.com. Follow the links from there to learn more: especially a 2007 study about the history of water quality impacts from hard rock mines. You can read the mine’s side on the Web site of Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.

You can read our past coverage starting with “Alaskans Pick Gold Mine over Salmon Protection” and continuing with “Will a Gold Mine Threaten Vital Choice Sockeye?,” which offers links to all of our prior articles on the mine threat.

Should you want to see what leading mine opponents say, visit these organizations’ Web sites:
Stay tuned…


Sources
  • Powell M, Becker J. Palin’s Hand Seen in Battle Over Mine in Alaska. The New York Times. October 22, 2008. Accessed online October 23, 2008 at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/22/us/politics/22mining.html
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