One of the few good things about Sarah Palin’s Alaska was the brief glimpses it offered into Alaska’s biggest industries, one of which was salmon fishing. (Seriously, though, other than that, the show was crap.) No doubt its cast isn’t happy about the proposed Pebble Mine on Bristol Bay, which would mine an estimated 85.5 billion pounds of gold, copper and molybdenum. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is launching an ad campaign against it while the industry, along with some congressional Republicans, insist it’s perfectly safe, despite what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said about it.
In fairness, though, what the EPA has said has been largely based on speculation. The environmental assessment comment period is still on, ending at the end of the month, and Pebble Mine’s developers have yet to submit formal blueprints. But the EPA has already released a draft assessment for a “hypothetical” mine. Industry backers, namely the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), fear this could turn into a “pre-emptive veto” that would effectively chill future watershed investment in Alaska and across the U.S.
That may be an exaggeration. But they do have a point about the necessity of this draft, which certainly costs taxpayers some money. In order to have a completely accurate picture of the environmental impact of the mine, the EPA needs to know exactly which space it will occupy, and which environmental protection and safety methods that PLP plans to employ. Mine opponents insist the EPA has enough information; however, without the blueprints, that’s just not the current reality.
But don’t be too surprised if the EPA releases a report that matches up quite well with the draft. Bristol Bay supplies nearly half the sockeye salmon on the planet; its exvessel (dock) value in 2010 totaled $148.7 million. Alaskan seafood accounts for up to half the private sector employment in coastal areas of the state. Since many of those areas are only accessible by air or sea, it’s also essential for subsistence, especially among Alaska Natives. There are reasons for concern, even if, like me, you’re generally OK with mining and would prefer mined-in-America metals.
If mine opponents are going to continue to argue on economic grounds, which is a good idea, the future of the mine may come down to estimates of net gains in terms of local jobs and state revenue. They’ll also need to bring up the health angle, as the mine will no doubt have an effect on the local water and air supply. And if there’s somewhere else in the U.S. where a massive gold and copper mine would be viable, point it out.
This isn’t simple NIMBYism. Opponents have identified ways that the Pebble Mine would be legitimately detrimental to a lucrative local economy. Proponents had better be prepared for a fight that they could very well lose, and lose fairly.