Alaskan Pebble mine proposal endangers fisheries, Washington economy

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 12, 2013 

Throughout June, dozens of fishing boats pushed out of Bellingham, navigated out of the Sound and set course northwest. They joined hundreds of other fishing boats from Washington, all en route to the teeming waters of Bristol Bay, Alaska, where all five species of Pacific salmon spawn.

As a recreational fisherman, I know salmon are a critical part of the identity and culture of the Northwest.

But as these fishers will tell you, salmon fishing isn't just a good way to spend a weekend. Salmon fishing is a huge part of our economy here in Bellingham and throughout Northwest Washington.

A proposed mine could change that.

A consortium of mining companies wants to build one of the world's largest open-pit mines in the Pebble deposit to access the buried gold, copper and molybdemum. The problem? The deposit sits in the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers, two of Bristol Bay's most important tributaries.

Acid drainage and metal leaching from the proposed mine could poison the waters of Bristol Bay, irrevocably damaging the salmon population that Washington fishers catch and American families eat.

We're not talking about just a few salmon in a few streams and rivers. The Bristol Bay fishery provides the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world with a harvest of more than 27 million salmon each year.

I oppose this mine, and last month I wrote to President Obama asking him to stop its development.

So why should a mine in Alaska worry us in Northwest Washington?

We could start with just the high number of jobs in our state tied directly to the bay. A recent study from the Institute Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska-Anchorage found that more than 3,000 jobs in Washington depend on the Bristol Bay fishery.

That same study showed that 769 of the total 2,777 permit holders for fishing in the Bristol Bay are Washington residents. Bellingham residents alone have about 100 of those permits.

Then there are the fish processors, restaurants, shipbuilders and truck drivers who all depend on a healthy fish population to sustain their jobs. In fact, according to that same report, the home offices of all the major processors for Bristol Bay fish are in Northwest Washington.

All of this means a lot of Washingtonians have stakes in what happens in Bristol Bay.

I do not oppose mining when it is done right. But the Environmental Protection Agency examined what a mine in the area would mean for the environment, and the results should give everyone pause. Their assessment showed that a loss of rearing habitat, stream flow reductions, wetland loss, waste leakage and runoff will all have significant impacts on salmon populations. They also found that a dam failure associated with mining could completely destroy salmon populations on some rivers and streams.

That is why fishers are so opposed to the Pebble Mine, and why they have come to me asking for help.

Taxpayers spend millions of dollars on salmon recovery and protection every year. That's a good investment that returns jobs to our community and protects the heritage that makes the Northwest so great.

We shouldn't threaten that investment by building a mine that could wipe out an entire salmon fishery.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D., represents the 2nd District that includes parts of Bellingham, Sudden Valley, San Juan County, Island County and portions of Skagit and Snohomish counties.

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