Editorial: The EPA finally protects Bristol Bay and its salmon
Published in Science & Technology News
The next time someone moans that Congress needs term limits, remember Bristol Bay. Sometimes it takes a long time to accomplish important goals in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell fought for more than a decade to save Bristol Bay's clean waters and habitat.
In 2011, Cantwell, D-Wash., became the first U.S. senator to oppose the Pebble Mine at the headwaters of rivers that feed Bristol Bay. Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally blocked the project.
No doubt the mine would have been profitable. Supporters claimed the land holds the most significant undeveloped deposits of copper and gold left in the world.
Profitability could not offset the public and the environmental cost, however. Mining is messy. The project would require more than 80 miles of roads crisscrossing a pristine landscape and a giant hole in the ground. A methane pipeline would stretch 165 miles with a gas-to-electricity plant. Thousands of acres of wetlands and more than 180 miles of streams would be permanently damaged or destroyed.
Worst of all, waste ponds would hold the toxic byproducts of mining. The slightest mistake would despoil the land and the waters, and America has seen plenty of such mistakes over the years.
Preserving wild lands and waters in the United States has inherent value. How we treat them reflects strongly on what sort of country we are.
But this isn't just about the environment. Tens of millions of sockeye salmon return to Bristol Bay annually, making it the world's largest sockeye fishery and spawning grounds. Harvesting and processing those salmon — not to mention related tourism, shipbuilding and other industries — generate $2.2 billion of economic activity every year, including about $500 million in Washington, and support 15,000 jobs.
Cantwell's campaign to protect Bristol Bay began with little support in Washington, D.C. Year after year she persuaded and shared a growing body of scientific evidence, slowly winning over skeptics. She stood with fishermen, tribes and environmentalists. Now the EPA will invoke the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay and its watershed.
"It's a simple concept, really. Let's not destroy a profitable, sustainable industry that keeps the water clean for the sake of just temporary extraction," Cantwell said in a speech on Jan. 31 about the EPA decision.
A lawsuit likely will come. The mine's backers should move on, but they've spent a lot of money and there's a lot more money to be made. Given the current composition of the U.S. Supreme Court, it's anyone's guess how a legal challenge might fare if it gets there.
In the meantime, the Pacific Northwest and the nation can enjoy a victory that was 12 years in the making, thanks in no small part to Cantwell's tenacious leadership.
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