Stopping Pebble Mine: It’s the Science, Stupid

Wall Street Journal attack on EPA’s proposed protections for Bristol Bay is high on rhetoric, wrong on the facts, and ignores comprehensive scientific record showing unacceptable adverse effects from widely condemned gold and copper mine proposed for Bristol Bay headwaters.

Bristol Bay Watershed

Credit: Robert Glenn Ketchum

In a May 30, 2022 editorial entitled “The Canary in the Pebble Mine,” The Wall Street Journal attacked the Environmental Protection Agency’s issuance on May 26, 2022 of a Proposed Determination that would prohibit or restrict construction of the Pebble Mine in the headwaters of the greatest wild salmon fishery on Earth. 

According to the Journal, EPA’s action is a “political assault” and a “textbook example of why the US is vulnerable to foreign mineral and mining extortion.”

This is colorful rhetoric, no doubt intended to inflame the ideological prejudices of readers unfamiliar or unconcerned with the reality (i.e., the facts) of the intensely scientific, decade-long process that has led to EPA’s recent proposal. That process included, for example, two formal scientific peer reviews of the EPA’s findings, multiple public hearings and comment periods (including another currently underway), and over two million public comments, with overwhelming support for EPA action.

If the widely condemned Pebble Mine is a “textbook example” of anything, it is mining failure—already abandoned over the past decade by four global mining companies. The share value of the project’s now 100 percent owner Northern Dynasty Minerals has dropped from a high in 2011 of over $21.00 to just $0.30 today.

It’s no mystery why:

The project is proposed for construction in the headwaters of the most productive sockeye salmon fishery in the world—the Bristol Bay fishery—which generates over 50 percent of the world’s supply and $2.2 billion in annual revenue and is poised to produce a record 73.4 million fish this summer alone. In 2020, the Trump Administration denied a permit to the project, and both of Alaska’s senators (Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan) repudiated the project. Even the late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, clarifying that he was "not opposed to mining," famously dismissed the Pebble Mine as "the wrong mine for the wrong place." For almost two decades it has been actively opposed by over 80 percent of the people who live in the Bristol Bay region. 

EPA’s recent proposal isn’t a “political assault”; it’s the latest bipartisan recognition that there are some places on Earth too special to mine. 

To support the charge of “mineral and mining extortion,” the editorial set up a false choice between electric vehicles and the minerals they require, mischaracterizing an April 2022 NRDC report to do so. Contrary to the Journal’s claim, NRDC has never “called for a moratorium on lithium brine extraction” but only on extraction by the wasteful evaporation method in the arid Puna de Atacama of South America. 

Like General Motors, Ford and others, we support speeding the shift to electric vehicles and away from the fossil fuels driving the climate crisis. We’ve called for exploration of and investment in responsible procurement of critical minerals like lithium and for efficient use of those minerals by, for example, building and recycling long-life batteries in ways that cut waste. But we insist on responsible mining practices that don’t put scarce water resources, wildlife, and communities at needless risk.

The good news is that the same mining industry that has abandoned the Pebble Mine is working to find critical minerals through more sustainable practices. As we transition to a clean energy future, there is absolutely no place for a uniquely destructive project like the Pebble Mine.

When ideology or ignorance supersedes facts, bad things happen– whether the subject is climate change, assault weapons, election results, or anything else. Deadly storms multiply, sea levels rise, children die, democracy fails, and nature disappears. As The Wall Street Journal recently proved, mining, too, can be a case in point when reality and science are subordinated to ideological rhetoric

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