Published February 24. 2013 4:00AM
In Bristol Bay, Alaska, shouts of protest can be heard just as loudly as the water runs. The bay's residents are fighting for their ecosystem, their home, their identity. At the root of it all: millions of salmon. If companies like Anglo American and Rio Tinto get what they want - a massive open-pit gold and copper mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, called Pebble Mine - those shouts will be silenced. Not because the fight will be over, but because the lives of the salmon that call the bay home will be threatened, along with the entire fragile ecosystem that depends on them - including the region's Native peoples.
You couldn't pick a worse place to dig a gold mine.
The project plans boast a 2,000-foot-deep open-pit mine stretching more than two-miles long with earthen dams up to 50 stories high, which are to be built in a known earthquake zone, and are supposed to hold back some 10-billion tons of mining waste mixed with cyanide, sulfuric acid, arsenic, and other toxic chemicals.
Not only is it unsafe, it is destructive and degrading. As one of the last remaining pieces of American wilderness, Bristol Bay is home to an "unspoiled Eden of vast tundra, crystal clear streams, and pristine lakes that span a stunning array of national parks and wildlife refuges," according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. To add to its endearing image, Native Alaskans still live their traditional ways here, filling their freezers and smokehouses with fish from the bay for the coming year. A Brown University study found that 20 percent of the average indigenous families' diet consists of sockeye salmon.
The bay is integral not only to the lives of individual citizens, but also to the lives of the collective population.
"The environmental riches of Bristol Bay generate over $400 million in fishing revenue every year and support tens of thousands of jobs for Alaska's working families," explains the NRDC. "And those resources are critical to the way of life of Alaska's Native people and subsistence communities, a vast majority of whose tribal organizations have joined the opposition to Pebble Mine."
That "vast majority," in fact, refers to the 74 percent of indigenous residents who are opposed. It's plain that Bristol Bay is not only a home, but also a way of life. These residents are being stripped of their identity in order to enrich others, left helpless under the hand of the selfish companies trying to build the mine.
Pebble Mine's construction will damage Bristol Bay's ecosystem. According to the NRDC, the plan for the mine includes the permanent destruction of more than 60 miles of salmon habitat, barriers to migrating fish and the extraction of 70 million gallons of fresh water per day. Aside from these degradations, even further risk to the salmon lies in the fact that the mine would be located in an active earthquake zone, according to the Alaska Conservation Foundation. In the event of a quake, the Wild Salmon Center asserts, a dam failure could occur, potentially releasing 10-billion tons of mining waste and toxic chemicals held back by the vulnerable dams.
Avoiding such a calamity requires these dams remaining intact in perpetuity, both during mine operation and following mine closure. As Robert Redford, a NRDC board of trustee declared, "The Pebble Mine is an environmental disaster waiting to happen."
In short, Pebble Mine is taking away far more than it gives back. Blame lies with the companies pushing for its establishment: Rio Tinto and Anglo American, and their owners, Cynthia Caroll and Tom Albanese, respectively. The mining industry has a history of chewing up near-sacred lands and spitting them back out as unrecognizable spoils.
Will the American public let them do it again?
By signing a petition to the president or sending your own letter to the Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Ken Salazar, you'll help to make strides towards saving one of our nation's last remarkable wild places. Bristol Bay residents are quite literally sitting on a gold mine - with your help, they won't be leaving anytime soon.
Laura Kastner is a senior at East Lyme High School.