Boston Globe Editorial © Copyright; 2007 The New York Times Company
April 2, 2007
IN ALASKA, the world’s most valuable wild salmon run is threatened by a plan to dig North America’s largest open-pit gold and copper mine. Like any major development promising jobs, Northern Dynasty Minerals’ Pebble project has supporters in Alaska, while opponents have introduced bills in the state Legislature to block the plan and protect the headwaters of Bristol Bay. More than any local action, however, conscientious enforcement of the US Clean Water Act by federal officials should deal the Pebble project the crippling blow it deserves.
The problem is that, under President Bush, enforcement of the nation’s environmental laws cannot be taken for granted. It took the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to conclude recently in a preliminary ruling that the Army Corps of Engineers had been wrong to grant permission for a much smaller Alaska gold mine to dump its tailings waste into a lake.
The corps was acting in line with a 2002 policy change by the US Environmental Protection Agency that eased rules for mountain-top removal mining. The Appeals Court reversed a lower court judge and said that mining tailings, the waste product of a chemical milling process, could not be treated like mere “fill material” that the 2002 regulation allowed mining companies to dump into bodies of water. A spokesman for Northern Dynasty said the company was not certain how the court action would affect its plan for a dam-enclosed holding area that fishermen say would destroy fish spawning waters.
One of the earthen dams that could be used to hold back the tailings would be 4.3 miles long and more than 700 feet high, just slightly shorter than Boston’s Hancock Tower. The dam would be larger than the Three Gorges Dam in China.
Both commercial and sport fishermen fear the effect the project would have on the region’s carefully managed salmon and trout fisheries. Copper released into the environment, the fishermen know, interferes with the ability of the salmon to return to the stream in which it was born.
Bristol Bay produces 30 percent of all Alaskan wild salmon, with a value of $216 million in 2006. Pebble’s reserves of gold, copper, and molybdenum, a metal used in strengthening steel, have an estimated value of $300 billion. “This is it,” said Lindsey Bloom, a Bristol Bay fishing boat captain, in an interview. “Do we value a life-sustaining resource or do we value gold? You can’t eat gold.”
When Congress passed the Clean Water Act more than 30 years ago, it was intended precisely to protect the pristine streams and lakes that sustain communities of fish, bears, and human beings. Federal officials should take their cue from the Court of Appeals and make the Clean Water Act a bulwark against the Pebble project.