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Alaska mine would be a Bristol Bay disaster waiting to happen

Protecting the fisheries in Alaska's Bristol Bay means not allowing a huge mine to open upriver.

President Obama's decision to permanently protect Alaska's Bristol Bay and adjacent lands from oil and gas drilling is so clearly the correct decision that the only objections will come from those whose sole interest is the welfare of those two energy industries.

The area in southern Alaska is home to walrus, sea otters and several kinds of whales, grizzly bears, wolverines and many other species. It's a popular tourist attraction too. But perhaps above all, Bristol Bay is the nation's fishing net, just as California's Central Valley is the nation's food basket. Forty percent of the wild seafood consumed in the United States comes from the bay, which has the world's largest sockeye salmon run, a sign of a particularly well-managed fishery.

The combined economic contribution of fishing and tourism in the region outstrips by many times over the total amount that oil and gas exploration would provide. That makes the president's decision economically sound as well as environmentally important.

But there is not much point in protecting the bay without protecting the rivers that feed it. That's why federal and state regulators should say no to the Pebble Mine, a proposed copper and gold mine at the headwaters of two of the eight major rivers that eventually arrive at Bristol Bay.

It would cover 20 square miles, making it one of the largest mines in the world, and the amount of toxin-laced waste it would produce would require construction of an earthen dam several miles long and 700 feet high. It would take something that big to hold the estimated minimum of 2.5 million tons of mine waste, which would require environmental treatment in perpetuity. There are valid concerns about leaks into groundwater and surface water as well as worries about how well the dam would hold up should a major earthquake occur, like the 9.2-magnitude quake that struck southern Alaska in 1964.

This year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took steps to severely limit mining operations in the area, saying that discharge from the mine could seriously and irreversibly harm the salmon run. But the developer, Canada-based Pebble Partnership, sued, and in November a judge issued a preliminary injunction preventing the EPA from immediately moving forward with its plans.

The agency has science on its side. And state residents too: In November, 65% of Alaska voters supported a proposition that gives the Legislature the authority to veto the mine even if it receives federal and state regulatory approval. The Pebble Mine was never a good idea, and it never will be.

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