Robert Redford: National ecological treasure in danger

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Check out NRDC Trustee Robert Redford's op-ed in USA Today calling for EPA action to protect Bristol Bay, Alaska from Pebble Mine -- a giant gold and copper mine proposed at the headwaters of its famed salmon runs.  The Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery is the economic and cultural linchpin of the region, producing nearly half of the world's wild sockeye salmon catch, generating $1.5 billion annually, supporting 14,000 jobs, attracting tens of thousands of tourists each summer, and sustaining the culture and traditions of Alaska Natives for thousands of years.  As Mr. Redford emphasized, it is "just too important, environmentally and economically, to be sacrificed for the sake of mining profits."

The following op-ed was originally published in on February 20, 2014. 

I, along with many others, have been working for years to protect Bristol Bay, Alaska, from large-scale mining. This spectacular, unspoiled landscape is home to the largest wild salmon fishery in the world. Every year tens of millions of salmon return to Bristol Bay to feed thriving commercial and sports fishing industries, as well as brown bears, whales, bald eagles and wolves. And they're the centerpiece of sustenance and culture for Alaska Natives who have lived there for thousands of years.

Incredibly, a Canadian-based mining company wants to build a vast open-pit gold and copper mine, one of the largest in the world, in the heart of this national treasure. The operation, known as Pebble Mine, would threaten the ecosystem and salmon – the entire lifeblood of the region. That's why it has been crystal clear to so many of us that this misguided scheme must be stopped. And now the federal Environmental Protection Agency has provided what should be the definitive evidence that the Pebble Mine would be a disaster.

In a final assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed that took three years of extensive scientific research, peer review and public comment to produce, the agency last month found the following:

  • The Bristol Bay watershed is an irreplaceable resource, producing nearly half of the world's wild sockeye salmon catch, supporting 14,000 jobs through fishing and tourism and generating hundreds of millions of dollars each year in direct expenditures.
  • The proposed mine would put the fishery and Alaskans' livelihood at "significant risk," and a failure of the huge dams required to contain the tons of toxic tailings would be "catastrophically damaging."
  • Just building Pebble Mine would destroy up to 94 miles of streams and up to 5,300 acres of wetlands, ponds and lakes.

Northern Dynasty Minerals, the sole owner of Pebble Mine, argues that the project would be an economic boon, creating jobs. While it might fatten their corporate profits and provide short-term gains, for the people of the region it would likely produce only losses — of traditional ways of life, a $1.5 billion annual fishing industry and 14,000 jobs.

That's why 80% of Bristol Bay residents don't want Pebble Mine – or its 10 billion tons of mining waste. Pebble Mine is opposed by a local coalition that has united commercial and sports fishermen with the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the largest private landowner in the region. They have been joined by 10 native communities, whose ancestors have fished this land for millennia.

Backers have also turned away. British mining giant Anglo American – the major money behind the mine – withdrew from the project last September, taking a loss of over $540 million to focus on projects with "lower risks."

Mitsubishi sold all of its interest in the project in February 2011. And last December, Rio Tinto, a British-Australian conglomerate, publicly announced that it, too, is considering divestment and will undertake a "strategic review" of its investment in Northern Dynasty.

Rio Tinto's announcement came after the California State Controller and New York City Comptroller – state pension funds together worth more than $500 billion and long-term, substantial shareholders in Rio Tinto – urged it to divest.

Bristol Bay is just too important, environmentally and economically, to be sacrificed for the sake of mining profits.

Because it was a scientific document, EPA's assessment made no policy recommendations. But it settles the argument that no large mine should be built at the headwaters of Bristol Bay. The president said, in the State of the Union speech, that this would be "a year of action." Now is the time for EPA to take action and stop Pebble Mine once and for all.

Robert Redford, the actor and director, is a trustee for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Photo credit: Robert Glenn Ketchum