In southwest Alaska, a mining partnership is in the “prefeasibility” stage of a project called Pebble Mine. The partnership is studying if $300 billion in copper, gold, and molybdenum can be unearthed without destroying the local ecosystem. Later this year, the “prefeasibility” study will end and a two to three year permitting process will begin, followed by construction. Production is slated for 2016. The problem: Pebble Mine will be at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, home to 40% of the world’s sockeye salmon.

For the past few years, debates about the mine have raged in Alaska. Job-seekers and industry stand for the mine. Conservationists, natives, and the fishing industry stand against it. The issue was put to vote in 2008. Ballot Measure 4, also known as the Clean Water Initiative, was defeated 57%-43%. (It appears that Sarah Palin had a hand in the measure’s fate.) If passed, the measure would have enacted greater protection for Alaska’s salmon fisheries against toxic waste leaked from mines.

Pebble Mine will be a leach mine, meaning that it will extract gold from ore using sodium cyanide. These mines have a deplorable safety record both here and abroad. In 1993, the Summitville Mine in Colorado spilled cyanide into the Alamosa River.  In what has been called the worst environmental disaster since Chernobyl, a Romanian leach mine with a faulty dam poured cyanide into the Danube River. The dam planned for Pebble Mine is similar to that Romanian dam.

“Not only would it be one of the largest open-pit mines in the world,” notes Elizabeth Dubovsky of Trout Unlimited. “But it would also produce 10 billion tons of acid leaching waste that would have be stored at the Pebble Mine site for perpetuity.  One of the largest dams in the world would need to be constructed to hold this waste back.”

Supporters of the mine shift the focus from environmental concerns to jobs. The mine will make money for Alaskans and Alaska. But Bristol Bay fisheries employ some 4,000 people and reel in between $300 million and $400 million annually. Salmon is a renewable resource–jobs and income are guaranteed for years to come. If the mine is built, metals will eventually run out. Elizabeth wonders, “Why should we take risks for a nonrenewable resource when we already have an incredibly valuable renewable resource that will feed us year after year?”

The yearly re-emergence of Bristol Bay salmon plays a crucial role in native Alaskan culture. More importantly, native Alaskan tribes depend on salmon for year-round sustenance. In response to the plea of nine native tribes, the EPA has agreed to review Pebble Mine. Using the Clean Water Act, the EPA can stop Pebble Mine’s construction if it is deemed an environmental threat. However, U.S. Representative Dom Young (R) of Alaska has introduced a bill to strip the EPA of its veto in the case of Pebble. In Alaska, the debate rages on.

To salmon lovers, the answer is clear, icy-cool, and brimming with sockeye.

Pebble could end one of the world’s last great salmon runs. That means less wild salmon to go around, which doesn’t bode well for the price tag of an already-expensive fish. However, saying “no” to Pebble can be for reasons simpler than dollars and cents. “In a nutshell,” says Elizabeth, “Bristol Bay’s headwaters aren’t the place for a mine like Pebble.  It’s not about being anti-mine, it’s about knowing when to say ‘no’ in places where it just doesn’t make sense and we have more to lose than gain.”

Further Reading: Alaska’s Choice: Salmon or Gold, Jewelers Against Proposed Gold Mine, Save Bristol Bay