Stopping the Bristol Bay mine

President Barack Obama must exercise his authority under the Clean Water Act to protect the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska. Reduced to the best available science and the import of the Pacific Northwest’s maritime economy, it’s a decision that doesn’t require ponderous delays. The results are in.

On Jan. 15, the Environmental Protection Agency issued its final “Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay,” which documents the massive fallout from the proposed Pebble Mine on critical salmon habitat.

The commercial sockeye salmon fishery is the most abundant and valuable on the planet, providing nearly half of the world’s wild catch. Washington is a direct beneficiary, home to nearly 800 Bristol Bay commercial permits. It’s a livelihood and culture that translates into $169 million in income for Puget Sound families.

“EPA Assessment provides unequivocal evidence of the irreversible harm the mine would pose to the 14,000 direct salmon-fishing jobs in Bristol Bay,” writes U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell in a Jan. 23 letter to the president. “In addition to direct jobs impacts, thousands of indirect jobs are at risk in industries ranging from shipbuilding, to gear manufacturing, logistics and seafood processing.”

For many, the EPA is code for activist posturing; much of the EPA report, however, flows from the Canadian mining company, Northern Dynasty Minerals, Ltd’s own business and technical mine plan. If the large-scale mine moves ahead, 24 to 94 miles of salmon streams would be destroyed; an additional 48 to 62 miles of streams could be contaminated with toxic mine waste; and 1,300 to 5,350 acres of wetlands would be buried.

In Snohomish County, Bristol Bay is part of the local narrative: Fishing up north, salting away money for school or the down payment on a home. There are people like Everett’s John Boggs who founded Deep Sea Fisheries in 1981. There are people like Chuck Carpenter, a lifelong Everett-ite who has fished in Bristol Bay for more than a decade.

The Pebble proposal also involves construction of the world’s largest earthen dam, containing toxic tailings of arsenic and copper, which (all parties agree) would leach into the groundwater and require ongoing water treatment.

As Cantwell urges, Obama needs to file notice in the Federal Register under the 404(c) authority of the Clean Water Act. This notice has been applied 13 times since the act’s inception, including by President Reagan to preserve the Florida Everglades, and it needs to be applied now.

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