Alaskans fight to save their salmon

Natives oppose mining plans that will spell disaster for ecosystem

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The Bristol Bay region in southwest Alaska is a national treasure. Largely untouched by development, the watershed area produces the world’s largest sockeye salmon fisheries and king salmon runs, while providing sustenance for the local wildlife and indigenous populations.

Despite its rich heritage and large role in fueling the community, Bristol Bay is now under threat from mining corporations who propose to build North America’s largest open-pit mine, risking the destruction of a $1.5bn commercial and sport salmon fishery supporting roughly 14,000  jobs.

The potentially enormous Pebble Mine, co-owned by Anglo-American and junior mining company Northern Dynasty Minerals, would include a massive storehouse of gold, copper and molybdenum.

The economic and ecological harm would spell disaster for the Bristol Bay community. The Pebble Mine would leave behind up to 10 billion tons of contaminated mining waste. That’s 3,000 pounds for every man, woman and child on Earth. The waste would sit behind giant earthen dams – in a seismically active area – threatening commercial, sport and subsistence fishing.

Salmon sustains native communities that have relied on subsistence fishing for thousands of years, as well as a diverse ecosystem and wide range of wildlife, from brown bears and eagles to whales and seals.

“The salmon really are the economic and ecological linchpin of the entire region,” says Taryn Kiekow, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

NRDC is an environmental non-profit organisation based in New York that is fighting construction of the Pebble Mine. The NRDC supports intervention by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  under the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay..

Mining corporations claim they can co-exist with the Bristol Bay ecosystem without causing harm, but Kiekow says it is not possible, as even the slightest leak from the mine will affect salmon, which are acutely sensitive to copper. Meanwhile, its sheer size will result in the elimination of up to 90 miles of salmon streams and destroy up to 4,800 acres of pristine wetlands – key habitat for salmon and other fish.

The mine has seen overwhelming opposition since it was first proposed. Nine tribes in Bristol Bay, as well as residents, commercial fishermen, sportsmen, conservation groups, churches, chefs, jewelers, lodge owners, elected representatives, and others have called on the EPA to protect the area from large-scale mining.

“Most of the people in Alaska who are fighting Pebble Mines do not consider themselves to be environmentalists, but they know a bad project when they see it. And the Pebble Mine is the worst project I’ve ever seen,” says Kiekow.

In the past, Anglo-American and Rio Tinto –  part owner of Northern Dynasty – have vowed to listen to local opposition, claiming community relations are important, and the NRDC is calling on these companies to uphold their promise.

Despite this, Kiekow laments that it is still “full steam ahead” for the mining companies, having already invested $200m. She says that now the best course of action is to write to the EPA, or the companies themselves, and tell them to abandon the project.

“There is so much  at stake with this project. Alaska will never be the same if the mining companies move forward and turn Bristol Bay’s renewable resource into an industrial wasteland,” says Kiekow.




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