Salmon in Bristol Bay
Salmon in the Bristol Bay watershed (Photo courtesy of Bristol Bay Forever)

The State of Alas­ka has tak­en its case direct­ly to the Unit­ed States Supreme Court, the bench where Samuel Ali­to cur­rent­ly sits, in an eleventh hour effort to res­ur­rect a giant, open pit cop­per and gold mine, pro­posed for land in west­ern Alas­ka that flanks two of Bris­tol Bay’s renowned salmon spawn­ing watersheds.

Alaska's beautiful Bristol Bay
Alaska’s beau­ti­ful Bris­tol Bay, pho­tographed by Jim Klug

Alas­ka Attor­ney Gen­er­al Treg Tay­lor acknowl­edged that the peti­tion is “extra­or­di­nary” but claims his state has a “sov­er­eign right to reg­u­late its own lands.” The U.S. Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency ruled last year that the Peb­ble Mine pro­pos­al vio­lates the Clean Water Act by imper­il­ing the world’s great­est sock­eye salmon fishery.

Min­er­al extrac­tion is, argues the state’s brief, “crit­i­cal to the con­tin­ued well-being of Alas­ka, which has long relied on its resource-rich lands to fund the state and local gov­ern­ments.” But the salmon runs of Bris­tol Bay sup­port 14,000 jobs and yield an annu­al income aver­ag­ing $1.5 bil­lion. An aver­age of 57 mil­lion sock­eye have returned annu­al­ly in the past decade.

The EPA was urged by Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell, D‑Washington, to use the Clean Water Act and care­ful­ly assess impacts of the pro­posed open pit.

The fed­er­al agency concluded:

“Dis­charges of dredged or fill mate­r­i­al to con­struct and oper­ate the pro­posed mine site alone would result in the per­ma­nent loss of approx­i­mate­ly 8.5 miles of anadro­mous fish streams, 91 miles of addi­tion­al streams that sup­port an anadro­mous fish­ery, and approx­i­mate­ly 2,108 acres of wet­land and oth­er waters.”

The pro­posed mine has drawn oppo­si­tion from com­mer­cial fish­ers, Bris­tol Bay native cor­po­ra­tions, sport fish­ing lodges and envi­ron­men­tal groups.

Even the late Sen­a­tor Ted Stevens, Alaska’s pre­mier boomer politi­cian, who was­n’t very fond of Cantwell, was sus­pi­cious of the project. A close friend of Stevens owned a home near­by at the gate­way to Lake Clark Nation­al Park.

The Trump regime appeared ready to have the Army Corps of Engi­neers green-light the project, only to meet oppo­si­tion from fam­i­ly and cronies of the 45th pres­i­dent. Two sons of his, Don­ald Trump, Jr., and Eric Trump, have stayed at the lodges. Even ex-FNC host Tuck­er Carl­son came out against the mine.

Don­ald Trump, Jr., post­ed a pic­ture of him­self and son hoist­ing a salmon with the mes­sage: “The head­wa­ters of Bris­tol Bay and the sur­round­ing fish­ery are too unique and frag­ile to take any chances with the Peb­ble Mine.”

The Supreme Court, in a 6–3 rul­ing ear­li­er this year, restrict­ed the EPA’s abil­i­ty to pro­tect the nation’s waterways.

But the high court has a con­flict of its own.

ProP­ub­li­ca recent­ly dis­closed that Ali­to took a pricey Alaskan vaca­tion to the King Salmon Lodge, locat­ed in the Bris­tol Bay watershed.

Ali­to did not report the jun­ket, tak­en on a pri­vate jet owned by hedge fund bil­lion­aire Paul Sign­er, a trip that would have set the jus­tice back at least $100,000 had Ali­to cho­sen to foot the bill. Ali­to was host­ed at the lodge by anoth­er major Repub­li­can donor, Robin Arkley II. Leonard Leo, head of the con­ser­v­a­tive Fed­er­al­ist Soci­ety, arranged the trip.

The mine pro­pos­al is the brain­child of Van­cou­ver-based North­ern Dynasty Min­er­als and its Peb­ble Lim­it­ed Part­ner­ship. Two of the world’s largest min­er­al con­glom­er­ates, Anglo Amer­i­can and Rio Tin­to, long ago pulled out.

Lead­ing jew­el­ry firms, notably Tiffany and Ben Bridge, have opposed the mine. So have such promi­nent chefs as Seattle’s Tom Douglas.

Three years ago, two activists of a group called the Envi­ron­men­tal Inves­ti­ga­tion Agency posed as poten­tial Hong Kong investors and made videos of two top Peb­ble exec­u­tives boast­ing of their back­stage influ­ence over Alas­ka politi­cians. They also spoke of expect­ing a $1.5 bil­lion state sub­sidy of the giant mine.

Of Sen­a­tor Lisa Murkows­ki, R‑Alaska, Peb­ble exec­u­tive Tom Col­lier observed: “She says things that don’t sound sup­port­ive of Peb­ble, but when it comes to vote, when it comes to do some­thing, she nev­er does any­thing to hurt Peb­ble, O.K.?”

The blow­back was instantaneous.

Sen­a­tor Murkows­ki fumed at the hint of duplic­i­tous behav­ior and came out against the Corps issu­ing a per­mit for the mine.

Sen­a­tor Dan Sul­li­van, R‑Alaska, then engaged in a tight reelec­tion race, tweet­ed: “I oppose Peb­ble Mine. No Peb­ble Mine.”

The Bris­tol Bay Defense Fund, a coali­tion oppos­ing the mine, described the state’s lat­est law­suit as “lit­tle more than a pub­lic­i­ty stunt filed on behalf of an unscrupu­lous min­er­al com­pa­ny, Peb­ble Lim­it­ed Part­ner­ship, (that) has repeat­ed­ly mis­rep­re­sent­ed its record and mis­led reg­u­la­tors, its investors, Con­gress and the gen­er­al public.”

The Puget Sound region has skin (or scales) in this game.

An esti­mat­ed 1,100 Wash­ing­ton fish­ers have license to cast nets in Bris­tol Bay. Wash­ing­ton is a major cen­ter for fish processing.

Sen­a­tor Cantwell has fought the mine for more than a decade, stress­ing that Bris­tol Bay is an enor­mous eco­nom­ic as well as nat­ur­al resource.

The legal bid to revive Peb­ble comes as the Biden-Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion faces a dicey deci­sion on anoth­er major min­er­al deposit. Ambler Met­als has esti­mat­ed there is $7.5 bil­lion worth of cop­per in a deposit north of the Arc­tic Cir­cle in the Brooks Range. A mine would pro­duce met­als need­ed to make bat­ter­ies and wind tur­bines, and oth­er ele­ments of the administration’s “green” agenda.

Yet, the mine would require con­struc­tion of a two hun­dred and eleven mile haul road. It would cut through pris­tine wilder­ness, cross eleven major rivers, and cut across the migra­to­ry paths of thou­sands of cari­bou. The road would trav­el twen­ty-six miles through Gates of the Arc­tic Nation­al Park and Preserve.

Due west of the mine site is Kobuk Val­ley Nation­al Park.

The Biden-Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion has sided with fish­eries and con­ser­va­tion groups in defense of the Bris­tol Bay fish­ery. It has halt­ed log­ging of old growth trees and new road con­struc­tion in the Ton­gass Nation­al For­est of South­east Alas­ka. And it has halt­ed new oil and gas leas­ing in the Arc­tic Nation­al Wildlife Refuge, west of Prud­hoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope.

At the same time, the admin­is­tra­tion has okayed Cono­co-Phillips’ ambi­tious Wil­low project, an oil and gas devel­op­ment west of Prud­hoe Bay.

Envi­ron­men­tal groups have bit­ter­ly opposed Wil­low, argu­ing that it will be a major emit­ter of green­house gas­es at a time when the Arc­tic is warm­ing at a pace faster than the rest of plan­et Earth.

The impacts of glob­al warm­ing are vis­i­ble in The Last Fron­tier. Melt­ing per­mafrost has forced clo­sure of the road across Denali Nation­al Park.

So-called “drunk­en forests” can be seen across north and cen­tral Alas­ka, trees lean­ing in all direc­tions due to per­mafrost melt.

No longer pro­tect­ed by an ear­ly-form­ing ice pack, coastal vil­lages are being bat­tered by fall and win­ter storms off the Bering Sea.

The state’s great tide­wa­ter glac­i­ers are in rapid retreat.

The Muir Glac­i­er no longer reach­es Muir Inlet in Glac­i­er Bay Nation­al Park. The Portage Glac­i­er is no longer vis­i­ble from the Portage Bay Vis­i­tor Cen­ter south of Anchor­age. The Colum­bia Glac­i­er, in Prince William Sound, has calved ice­bergs into the path of oil tankers leav­ing Valdez.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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