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The Keystone XL Pipeline has been firmly established as North America’s biggest environmental battleground, but another major battle is forming in Bristol Bay, Alaska over the proposed Pebble Mine, a massive gold and copper mine that has the potential to wipe out half the world’s remaining wild sockeye salmon. And like the Keystone pipeline, President Obama will have the final say on whether construction will move forward. The sprawling open-pit mine would decimate vital salmon streams, and commercial fishermen, environmental organizations and native tribes are all voicing their opposition to the mine.
The Pebble Mine would be so large, it’s almost difficult to put it in perspective. With a footprint that would stretch over about 28 mikes, it would be the largest mine in North America, and it would be roughly 20 times larger than all other mines in Alaska combined. Additionally, the mine would require the construction of new roads, which would pass over countless salmon streams, and it would require a new shipping port in Cook Inlet.
Perhaps the most dangerous part of the plan would be the construction of several massive tailings dams, which would hold as much as 2.5 billion tons of toxic waste. Those permanent tailings storage facilities would be intended to protect the fragile ecosystems of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers. But as several experts have noted, a major earthquake could cause those dams to fail, completely wiping out the salmon fishery.
The Pebble Partnership — which is jointly owned by two foreign mining companies — claims that the mine will create 2,500 construction jobs and generate $180 million per year in tax revenue. But it will likely kill many more jobs than it creates in the $500 million commercial fishing sector, which is one of Alaska’s main economic drivers and employs more than 14,000 full- and part-time workers.
Six native Alaskan tribes recently asked the Environmental Protection Agency use its power under the Clean Water Act to block the mine. “If we don’t protect this, we’ll have nothing to fight over in the future,” Peter Andrew Jr., a board member of the Bristol Bay Native Corp, recently told the Washington Post. “This is the last place on Earth like this.” But the EPA hasn’t made a decision yet, and it’s still conducting environmental assessment reports on the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds.
Second photo by AlaskaTrekker