This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
Two foreign companies want to open an immense gold and copper mine in Alaska that would create 2,500 construction jobs and generate up to $180 million annually in taxes and royalties.
That’s great — for Alaska. But the Pebble Mine could harm West Coast salmon fisheries by threatening key Bristol Bay habitat. And that’s if everything goes right with the mine. If something were to go wrong, the effects would be devastating to a $500 million industry that provides full- and part-time jobs for more than 14,000 workers in commercial and native fisheries.
That’s why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should invoke a rarely used section of the Clean Water Act to prevent the mine from getting a federal permit. That action is supported by Washington’s U.S. senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and nine native tribes.
If allowed to be built, the open-pit mine would be the largest in North America. Alaska’s senators claim that the economic benefits of the mine would outweigh any possible environmental damage. Are they willing to reimburse Washington, Oregon and California fishing interests for income and job losses should the mine damage salmon fisheries? What if the damage were permanent?
The EPA’s draft watershed assessment paints a grim picture of the mine’s impact. Between 54 and 89 miles of streams would be lost, including key spawning and rearing habitat for sockeye, chinook and coho salmon. Between 1,200 and 4,800 acres of wetlands would be lost. The mine’s transportation corridor would cross 53 streams and rivers that are known to or are likely to support young salmon.
The worst effect would be if one or more of the mine’s tailing dams were to fail. Because there’s no plan to remove these dams — which could be higher than the Washington Monument or the St. Louis Gateway Arch — after mining operations cease, they would need to be maintained in perpetuity.
What happens if the mining companies involved go out of business? Whose responsibility will it be to ensure the dams don’t fail? And who pays for damages if they do?
The risks to the environment and to an important, established industry are too great. The federal government should not allow foreign mining interests to threaten West Coast salmon fisheries.