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Southwest Alaska Residents Approve Initiative Barring Large-Scale Mining that Threatens Salmon

Joel Reynolds

Posted October 18, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Environmental Justice, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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Today – October 17, 2011 – the votes were counted in Bristol Bay, and, in a historic result against enormous odds, the Save Our Salmon initiative has prevailed.

In the Lake and Peninsula Borough of southwest Alaska, where the massive Pebble Mine is proposed to be sited by a consortium of foreign mining companies, the residents have approved a prohibition against large-scale resource extraction – like the Pebble Mine -- that would destroy or degrade salmon habitat in their region. 

And, most remarkably, they did so despite an intense campaign of fear funded by the Pebble Partnership falsely charging that the initiative “will drive Lake and Pen families away to find work, force schools to close and drive up the cost of food and fuel as the local economy shrinks even more.”

It’s no surprise that the residents of the Bristol Bay region support salmon protection over the Pebble Mine.  Public opinion poll after public opinion poll has confirmed for years that opposition to the mine is overwhelming throughout the Bristol Bay region as a whole, from native communities and village corporations to commercial and recreational fishermen and hunters to development leaders like the Bristol Bay Native Corporation. 

But this initiative is the first that, by its terms and because it carries the force of law, will prevent destructive large-scale mining from moving forward against the will of the people who live there.

The Pebble Partnership has long committed that they won’t proceed if the people of the region oppose the mine, and today’s approval of the Save Our Salmon initiative is the latest indication of the region’s continuing resistance.  The Pebble Mine can’t be built without degrading or destroying significant salmon habitat, since the proposed site sits at the headwaters of the salmon stream system that feeds Bristol Bay’s incomparable wild salmon fishery. 

Unfortunately, the Pebble Partnership isn’t expected to walk away just yet.  Despite their assurances of respect for local views, despite their avowed commitment to proceed only with strong local support, they have already made clear their intention to challenge the initiative in court.  In fact, even before the vote was taken, they went to court to block it and were told, first by the trial court and ultimately by the Alaska Supreme Court, that the people must be allowed to vote.

Now that the verdict is in, expect the Pebble Partnership to head back to court, urging that the initiative be invalidated, asserting their right, as foreign corporations, to fill Alaskan salmon streams with contaminated mining waste and inevitably put at risk the way of life that has sustained the Bristol Bay region for thousands of years.   

But this fact remains: Today the people of the Lake and Pen Borough have resisted the Pebble Partnership’s intensive campaign of disinformation and fear and approved an initiative to save their salmon. The only question now is whether the Pebble Partnership is listening.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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