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Vol. 19, No. 8 Week of February 23, 2014
Providing coverage of Alaska and Northwest Canada's mineral industry

Mining News: Comparing mine, fishing jobs tells tale

Setting aside for a moment the politics of the Pebble Project, does the organized opposition benefit the Bristol Bay fisherfolk?

J. P. Tangen 

Special to Mining News 

Although in my judgment it is premature for little green people to write the obituary of the Pebble Project, undoubtedly it is high-centered for the nonce, (however long a nonce may be); but that shouldn’t prevent us from reflecting on some of the silly arguments that have been made against the project.

Undoubtedly, the greatest success in that regard was the implication that somehow the project, if it evolved into a mine, would somehow make fish in Bristol Bay die. The outspoken proponents of that point of view, generally speaking, were people who kill fish for a living. Nothing kills a fish like hauling it out of the water, cutting off its head and tail and filleting it.

Nonetheless, the argument was made and got some traction, perhaps because Robert Redford helped spread the word. It is not known whether Mr. Redford has ever killed a fish, but that seems to make no difference.

Looking behind the argument, it seems reasonable to ask a question or two about just exactly how a mine in Southwest Alaska might kill one or more salmon, and the argument seems to break down into two viral vectors: some sort of renegade escapement of one or more substances leaking from such a mine site or a catastrophic impoundment failure liberating a large volume of devastating chemical fluids into the streams and tributaries that support the fishery.

Responsible objective observers were indubitably stunned at such solipsism. No one could quite explain how it was that a mine, which had not even been planned yet could intoxicate fish when the entire might of the greatest nation on Earth was committed to thwarting even the tiniest spill of even the most innocuous pollutant. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in its inimitable wisdom prepared an area assessment, apparently in total ignorance of the Clean Water Act which it administers, to ensure that no putridity finds its way into the waters of the United States. The assessment can only be construed as a testament to the ineptitude of the authoring agency.

In another vein, the argument ran, the Southwest is seismically active, and who knows when the next gazillion point nine on the Richter Scale seismic event might come along and burst the humungous dam that was going to be built to hold back the reservoirs of pregnant tailing water, sending torrents downstream with malicious intent? It seemed lost on the concerned that an event of that magnitude might ruin the whole weekend for a lot of other folks and their piscine friends, even if there were no mines around.

But, even assuming for the sake of light-hearted repartee that some tragic event or another might put a temporary dent in the anadromous population, the question remains: what is the true significance? By which I mean, to be perfectly clear, that there was never any particular quantitative projection concerning the extent of the hypothetical fishkill. Would it be one fish, or 100, or 100,000 or 100 million? It is hard to know when you are building arguments on suppositions. Arguably, the impact would be maxed out at about 20 percent of any given run, because the Pebble Project, by any projection I have seen, would impact only two of the 10 major tributaries that drain into Bristol Bay.

So let’s say that one fifth of the fishermen and women dependent on catching those unfortunate critters were deprived of their livelihood for a season or two, what would be the economic impact to this, the poorest region of the state? According to the Alaska Department of Labor, in 2012 there were 2,260 workers engaged in the seafood processing industry in Bristol Bay, making a grand total of US$17 million.

If one fifth of them were laid off due to a shortage of fish slime, that would mean 452 warm bodies, more or less, would have to go to work at the hypothetical mine to clean up the mess, and they would have to exchange their average annual salary of US$7,500 for a mine worker’s average annual salary of about US$95,000.

It goes without saying that the foregoing comparison is unfair, after all fishing does tend to be seasonal; however, the point remains the same – the argument that a world-class mine in southwest Alaska could somehow impair a world-class fishery in Bristol Bay is simply silly.

Proponents of public policy who embrace such a position say far more about themselves than about the substance of the situation. Alaska’s mines are safe and environmentally sound. The published numbers are irrefutable. Ultimately, the deposits of southwest Alaska will be developed, Luddites to the contrary notwithstanding.



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