When Nature and Politics Collide

by Dick Sciaroni

We live in a complicated, inter-related world. What happens in one place rebounds elsewhere. This is true for the natural as well as the political world, and sometimes they collide, and not always for the best.

First, the natural world, Bristol Bay, Alaska.

Many Americans probably haven’t heard of Bristol Bay. It’s the eastern-most branch of the Bering Sea and home to the largest salmon run in the world. Not North America, not Asia, not Europe. The world. All five species of east Pacific salmon spawn in Bristol Bay’s fresh water rivers.

I have fished the rivers that feed Bristol Bay. The number of salmon is astounding. They spawn in vast numbers, moving up stream to lay or fertilize eggs and then die. It seems one could literally walk across the water on the salmons’ backs. They are the nutrient base for the flora and fauna of hundreds of thousands of square miles that surround Bristol Bay. Bears gorge on salmon each fall. The carcasses of spawned-out salmon cover countless miles of riverbank. As they decay they give back nutrients to the rivers, and the rivers to the trees and grasses. Eagles build their nests in the trees. Moose and caribou and deer graze on those grass. Salmon have sustained the Bristol Bay drainage for eons.

It is difficult to believe anyone would think to endanger Bristol Bay and the salmon fishery that puts millions of pounds of salmon on American dinner plates every year.
Now let’s look at the Pebble Mine. It is a proposed project to extract deposits of porphyry copper, gold, and molybdenum ores in Alaska, including the largest undeveloped copper ore deposit in the world.

The Pebble project is at the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers, two of the eight major rivers that feed Bristol Bay. Pebble would be the largest mine in North America and one of the largest in the world. The mining complex would cover some 20 square miles and require a several miles-long earthen dam over 700 foot high to hold billions of tons of mine waste produced over its lifetime – nearly enough to bury the city of Seattle, WA. The waste would require treatment in perpetuity. Any release of waste would devastate Bristol Bay’s salmon runs. One need only recall the 9.2 earthquake that struck Anchorage in 1964 to question the wisdom of such a large dam in a region prone to seismic activity.

In 2013 the EPA released its final Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment: any mine the size, type and location of Pebble cannot operate in Bristol Bay without harming salmon. In 2014 it released a Proposed Determination opposing the Pebble Mine. Invoking the Clean Water Act it concluded that the Pebble Mine would result in “complete loss of” fish habitat in Bristol Bay. In 2016 the EPA’s independent Inspector General determined the agency acted fairly by limiting mining in Bristol Bay due to its unacceptable risk to wild salmon, clean water and the fish-based economy. In January 2018 EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt refused to withdraw the 2014 Proposed Determination. 

Now the political world.

On July 30, 2019, after a private meeting between Alaska governor Mike Dunleavy and President Trump in Air Force One while Trump was heading to the G20 summit in Japan, the EPA reversed course. The Pebble Mine could proceed. Neither the White House nor the EPA would disclose whether the EPA had been directed by the Trump administration to change course on Pebble Mine.

A little background on Mike Dunleavy. He campaigned on a promise to restore the state oil and gas dividend to residents cut by previous administrations. Dunleavy even promised to reimburse residents for diminished dividends in prior years. Not surprisingly, Alaskans voted their pocketbooks and elected Dunleavy. To fund his plan, Dunleavy demanded a 40% cut in the budget for the University of Alaska that threatened the closure of the Fairbanks campus. He has since agreed to a lower cut. Meanwhile, a campaign to recall Dunleavy is headed to the courts.

The natural and the political worlds collide in Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine. That irreplaceable fishery is now threatened with extinction because two politicians, Trump and Dunleavy, decided that making money was more important than preserving the world’s largest salmon fishery that feeds millions of people. Money speaks in the political world. Unfortunately, it may now affect the natural world that is Bristol Bay and its salmon.

For more information see http://www.savebristolbay.org/

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