Much attention has been on Alaska politics lately thanks to John McCain’s choice of Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate, not to mention Sen. Ted Stevens’ resounding victory in the Republican primary despite his indictment on corruption charges.
But another political development in Alaska also deserves national attention both for the issue itself and its larger symbolism. During the primary election, voters also decided on Ballot Measure 4, which if passed would have prohibited large metal mines from discharging contaminants into salmon streams or drinking water sources. Though the initiative couldn’t legally target a specific project, it was drafted to try to block the proposed Pebble Mine, which could be North America’s largest open pit gold mine.
And the whole controversy provided yet another example of the common Catch-22 choice low-income and rural communities are so often forced to face: jobs or the environment; investment or your health.
The mine would “straddle,” in the words of one opponent, two streams that flow into Bristol Bay, the world’s largest wild salmon fishery. Salmon swim into freshwater streams — to the place where they were hatched — to spawn; so if those streams were contaminated, salmon and the Alaska Natives and commercial fishermen who depend on them could be severely impacted.
The measure was voted down by 57 percent of voters, likely swayed by the argument that the mine would provide a massive economic infusion and also that the measure could freeze or destroy the state’s mining industry as a whole. This is no small thing in a state that is largely dependent on resource extraction, and perhaps looking especially to mining since gold and metal prices are sky high and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve is opposed by both presidential candidates.
Alaska Natives and other residents of the rural areas and small towns around Bristol Bay are in tough economic straits, by all accounts. “Things there have been ailing for a long time,” said one former local fisherman who relocated to another part of the state. Besides tourism, government jobs and salmon fishing, there are few other jobs in the region and prices are extremely high; gasoline prices can be over $8 a gallon. Salmon fishing, though a bedrock of the local economy, is seasonal and subject to strict regulations meant to maintain its sustainability. Salmon prices have also fallen sharply over the past 20 years because of competition from fish farms, though wild salmon prices are rebounding now.
The companies (Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd, a Canadian firm, and the multinational mining giant Anglo-American) which want to develop Pebble Mine point out that without Ballot Measure 4, they are still subject to state and federal clean-water and other environmental regulations. But local environmentalists and fishermen, as well as national groups which have weighed in on the issue, fear existing law will do little to prevent massive contamination of the Bristol Bay and its streams.
The operation would be mining sulfide ore, which when disturbed and exposed to oxygen creates sulfuric acid. Opponents point out no sulfide mine in North America has been known to operate without causing any acid mine drainage. In northern Michigan, opponents of the proposed Yellow Dog nickel mine are fighting a similar battle, and so far existing state and federal regulations have not derailed the currently-on-track plans for the mine.
Pebble Mine’s waste would be contained in lined tailings ponds that would likely meet state and federal regulations; but these regulations basically don’t address the high likelihood of leakage, especially in the case of seismic activity or other “unforeseen” but highly possible events. Then it is a case of addressing the disaster after the fact, as with the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, which is still leaving Alaska Native communities along Prince William Sound reeling.
Opponents of Ballot Measure 4 had valid complaints about the initiative’s language being vague and it being something of a back-door way to address a specific proposed mine.
Ideally, local communities would have say over such massive projects in their own backyards without having to propose legislation and wage a high-priced electoral campaign. And ideally along with that, federal clean water and other environmental regulations, weakened and even gutted in various ways during the Bush administration, would provide a strong and final safeguard against ill-advised projects with the potential to seriously harm people and the environment.
If Pebble Mine does go through and ends up causing the kind of disaster many opponents fear, perhaps that will help teach this lesson. Or hopefully we won’t have to wait that long.