A report released last week by the Environmental Protection Agency has led Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) to announce his opposition to a massive mining project proposed for construction in the watershed of two of his state’s most productive salmon rivers.
The Pebble Limited Partnership holds a claim to land in southwest Alaska which it believes contains up to half a trillion dollars worth of copper, gold, and molybdenum. But the area is so remote that to actually develop the claim would require construction of over 100 miles of new roads, a new deepwater port, a 378-megawatt power plant, and earthen dams standing taller than the Washington Monument to prevent toxic mine waste from contaminating pristine salmon runs and groundwater.
Since its inception, the project has received the benefit of the doubt, if not outright support, from Alaska’s typically industry-friendly Congressional delegation. In the immediate aftermath of the EPA’s report, both Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Rep. Don Young (R-AK) blasted the agency for its report, with Young calling it “a serious threat … to Alaska’s sovereignty.” But on Sunday, Begich broke ranks with his colleagues.
Following days of careful review of the watershed assessment’s scientific analysis, Begich announced that in light of the risk the project represented to the salmon industry, it should not be built. In an interview with the Anchorage Daily News, he said the mine would present “too many potential long-term impacts to a fishery that is pretty critical to that area but also to Alaska, to world markets” and called the project “the wrong mine, wrong place, too big.”
Begich’s announcement reflects the project’s eroding among all Alaskans in recent years. A recent Hays Research Group poll found that nearly 63 percent of the state’s residents support a possible 2014 ballot initiative that would block the mine, while just 24 percent would back the mining operation.
And while Alaskans typically don’t like Washington or the EPA meddling in what they consider to be internal affairs, Begich’s position is consistent with that taken by the man he defeated to gain his Senate seat in 2010 — the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) called Pebble “the wrong mine for the wrong place.”
While the Pebble Partnership predictably castigated Begich’s decision, Bob Waldrop, Executive Director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, praised the announcement saying, “Senator Begich is standing up for Alaskan jobs and protecting a way of life for fishermen across Alaska.”
Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.