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Scary lessons for Bristol Bay from recent B.C. mine-waste accident

The view over Alaska's Bristol Bay Credit: Flickr user FishPhotog

For millennia, humanity’s insatiable appetite for valuable metals has degraded the integrity of ecosystems that provide habitat for the world’s wildlife, and the clean water and food humans need to thrive. During the past decade, proposals have emerged to develop several mega-mines on the North America's West Coast on some of our largest free-flowing rivers that produce much of the world’s wild salmon.

While the mining industry recognizes the value and distinctiveness of watersheds in places like Bristol Bay in Alaska and on the Stikine River in the transboundary area of northern British Columbia and southeast Alaska, we are also told that modern mining methods pose little risk to the ecosystems they will be developed within.

The catastrophic mine accident on Aug. 4 at Mount Polley, British Columbia, serves as a humbling reminder that mining history does, in fact, repeat itself. The failure of the dam there, built to retain waste from this copper and gold mine, released an estimated 9,800 Olympic-sized swimming pools of a toxic cocktail of copper, arsenic, selenium and other contaminants into Quesnel Lake in the headwaters of the Fraser River, Canada’s most prolific salmon ecosystem.

Whether this specific accident will have long-term consequences for water quality, fish and local people will not be fully understood for years. However, it should bring into sharp focus the question of whether it is reasonable to develop mega-mines on free flowing rivers that currently support a wide variety of invaluable ecological services and economic activities.

In an eerie coincidence, Knight Piesold Consulting, the company that built the failed tailings pond dam at Mount Polley also designed the tailings dam for the controversial Pebble Mine, the massive open-pit copper/gold mine proposed for the headwaters of Bristol Bay — the world’s largest sockeye salmon producer.

Further, the owner of Mount PolleyImperial Metals, plans to begin operations shortly at the newly constructed Red Chris copper/gold mine in the Stikine River watershed, one of Canada's and southeast Alaska’s largest salmon producing areas and the home of one of the world’s last remaining temperate rainforests. The tailings at Red Chris will be dumped into a Mount Polley type pond, except that it will be larger and deeper.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently weighing whether to take action to protect Bristol Bay salmon and people by restricting large-scale mine waste disposal, a decision that would likely prohibit development of the controversial Pebble Mine. The period for the public to comment on the proposed action ends today. At the same time, Alaska fishermen, tribes and political leaders are urging U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to use the Boundary Waters Treaty to protect Southeast Alaska’s wild salmon and unspoiled waters from the mining district planned for headwaters of the Stikine, Taku and Unuk Rivers.

U.S. taxpayers are spending billions of dollars to manage and clean up mining waste legacies in the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River, which was once as great as the Fraser River for producing salmon. The corporations that made untold riches from these mines are long gone, but their impacts to salmon and wildlife in some tributaries will persist for centuries. We need to ask ourselves whether we are willing to trust that the infrastructure can be built to operate new large mines without substantial risks to rivers, fisheries and the people currently dependent on these ecosystems.

The policy decisions involved in permitting large-scale metal mines are indescribably complex. Scientific information sheds light on the potential risks and benefits of such projects. However, in the end, public input will ultimately be most influential in motivating decision-makers to achieve clarity in their actions.

What do you want from our rivers? We urge you to let your elected officials and other federal decision-makers know.

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