Alaska's Pebble mine proposal threatens business in Whatcom County

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 31, 2013 

I've spent the last 30 years building a family business around the Bristol Bay, Alaska, salmon fishery, making the aluminum boats that fishermen use to harvest fish from the world's greatest sockeye salmon run.

While southwestern Alaska may seem far off, many people in Washington state understand the deep economic ties between Bristol Bay and the Puget Sound. Just recently, a new economic report produced by the University of Alaska found that the Bristol Bay salmon fishery is worth $1.5 billion in total value and produces nearly 6 percent of all U.S. seafood export value. The fishery employs more than 12,000 people in fishing and processing, concentrated most heavily in Alaska, Washington and Oregon. And another nearly 8,000 jobs across the country are tied to the fishery in industries like grocery retailing, canning, warehousing and restaurants.

All of this economic bounty comes from the world's largest sockeye salmon run, which averages 37 million fish a year and feeds people around the globe.

To me, the numbers in the economic report aren't just statistics. I first started building aluminum gillnet boats in 1978, and I worked hard to build All American Marine. Although I sold the company last year, it employs 50 people, and my new business, Strongback Metal Boats, now employs seven people.

But, the jobs and revenue of Bristol Bay don't stop at my employees and what they spend in Whatcom County. To build our boats, we also order products and services from other vendors and specialists, ordering nuts and bolts and other parts, subcontracting electricians and hydraulic work, purchasing jet pumps from a supplier in Arkansas and engines from a Seattle vendor. Put another way, a lot of people and businesses are affected by one boat, and in the case of Bristol Bay, a rising tide lifts all boats. In Washington there are dozens of small businesses like my own that are tied to the Bristol Bay salmon fishery and directly support hundreds of skilled labor jobs.

But, all of this value, investment and hard work could be wiped out in one fell swoop by a risky proposal called Pebble Mine. Two foreign mining giants want to dig a hard rock mine that would be three times larger than the biggest mine in the country - right in the heart of the salmon fishery and watershed. The mine would require that up to 10 billion tons of acid-laced mine waste be stored "in perpetuity" behind earthen dams in an earthquake prone area. I've yet to see a company or government that will be around in thousands of years to monitor its toxic pile, and with Bristol Bay, there is no do-over.

In fact, the EPA recently found that digging up the Pebble deposit of gold and copper will destroy up to 90 miles of salmon streams and up to 4,800 acres of wetlands - without a major Exxon Valdez- or Deep Horizon-like catastrophe. That doesn't include dewatering other streams because Pebble would require lots of water for operations, or the many fish culverts it would have to build to get a road from the mine site to a port, and on and on.

Fortunately, the EPA has the power to stop these devastating impacts and further risks from harming the fish, industry, economy and people of Bristol Bay. It can use the Clean Water Act to create sensible restrictions that allow responsible development but prevent harmful projects like Pebble. They currently have a public comment period now and I encourage people to add their voices to the call for protecting Bristol Bay.

I'm proud to build the boats that harvest Bristol Bay salmon and I hope and plan to continue investing in the fishery. Our industry and this fishery deserve respect and protection. It's time for President Obama and local officials like Rep. Rick Larsen to demonstrate leadership to protect Bristol Bay's American jobs and industry now.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pat Pitsch is a boat builder and entrepreneur who has worked in the Bristol Bay salmon industry for over 30 years. He founded All American Marine in Bellingham in 1987 and built more than 50 boats for the Bristol Bay salmon industry before expanding his design-and-build operations to catamarans and passenger ferries. Pitsch is now the principal behind Strongback Metal Boats, a family company that constructs gillnet and seine vessels for Bristol Bay and other fisheries in Alaska.

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