September 10, 2008

An Environmental Disaster

If you could pass a law not just punishing a rapist, but preventing the rape from occurring in the first place, why wouldn't you?

Alaska voters may, in effect, have that chance on Tuesday - by approving a law that might prevent the wholesale pillaging of a pristine area with what would be the largest open mine in the Western hemisphere.

Not only would the foreign-owned Pebble Mine despoil the unblemished scenery near southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay, but it would also endanger the state's invaluable and irreplaceable salmon industry.

As the Juneau Empire noted in an editorial Friday, the immense open mine could endanger the area's "precious salmon-rearing watershed" and "the $250 million fishing industry that feeds Alaskans and their families."

The truth is, this isn't just about Alaska. Anyone who cares deeply about protecting the environment should keep an eye on Ballot Measure 4 in Alaska on Tuesday, which would regulate the discharge of mining pollutants into the state's waterways.

The notion of oil drilling in a barren enclave of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has become a cause celbre for environmentalists. We think this is a much more deserving cause. This gigantic mine could do infinitely more damage, in a much more populated and yet largely untouched landscape.

State officials claim the law wouldn't add much to Alaska's existing mining and waterway standards. Nor is it clear the law would prevent the mine. But this is nothing to take chances with. And perhaps a loud and unambiguous statement from voters in Alaska would at least significantly impact the permitting process.

Moreover, salmon protection was significantly watered down during the administration of Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski. Ballot Measure 4 would simply return the state to the level of salmon protection "that had existed since statehood and under which all current mines were permitted," the Empire argues.

And even if the mine goes through and is heavily regulated, accountability might be problematic due to its foreign ownership. "We could end up footing the bill for what could be the biggest environmental cleanup project in the nation's history," writes the Empire.

And, oh by the way, the site sits in a known earthquake zone.

This isn't about being anti-mine; the industry is key to Alaska. But the fishing industry is too, as well as eco-tourism. The fishing industry is the second-largest taxpayer in the state behind oil, and sport fishing alone brings in $60 million to the Bristol Bay area.

"The state of Alaska must not sell out the most precious of its natural resources and its residents for the sake of foreign profits," the Empire concludes.

No American should want that.

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