Double jeopardy: Spectacular Bristol Bay is threatened by both oil and gas drilling and a proposed mine.
Photograph © 2010 Robert Glenn Ketchum
Read the article on Audubonmagazine.org here
Alaska. Fooling With Paradise
Over the years Robert Glenn Ketchum’s arresting photos and dogged environmental advocacy have helped preserve endangered lands from Arizona to the Adirondacks. In 1998 Audubon ranked him among the 20th century’s most influential environmental advocates. In recent years the California-based photographer has focused his efforts on saving southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay, home to the state’s greatest wild salmon runs. The threats are twofold, coming from both the Bush administration’s interest in opening up the region to gas and oil exploration and from a proposed gold and copper mine that threatens to despoil Bristol Bay’s spectacular watershed, which Ketchum has visited many times and photographed for exhibits now touring the country. “It’s a place as big as the state of Washington,” he says, “and the longer I spend there, the more I see that this a unique, intact ecosystem, one of the last ones on the planet.”
The massive open-pit, hard-rock mine known as the Pebble Project calls for the creation of 10 square miles of “lakes” to contain an estimated 2 billion to 3 billion tons of contaminated mine waste at the head of salmon spawning streams. Opponents warn that a single earthquake in this seismically active region could release a poisonous stew that would take generations to clean up. “It’s a region with huge, off-the-charts biological value,” says Tim Bristol, Trout Unlimited’s Alaska program director, noting that nearby Katmai National Park has the world’s highest concentration of brown bears. Audubon Alaska has identified four large Important Bird Areas at the head of the bay that are major migratory waterfowl flyways for the Steller’s eider and other federally threatened species. Plus, the watershed accounts for a third of all salmon caught in Alaska; its sport and commercial fisheries together earn about $350 million a year. (For more information about Bristol Bay and how you can help, go to the Audubon Alaska website.)
On its website, Northern Dynasty Mines, the Pebble Project’s primary stakeholder, says more than $30 million has been spent studying “natural systems” to “achieve environmentally responsible mining.” Still, critics remain suspicious of such claims, pointing to the impact of hard-rock mines in Nevada and Montana, where heavy metals and carcinogens such as arsenic, along with the deadly cyanide used to extract metals out of raw ore, have wreaked environmental havoc.
As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will probably oversee the permitting process. State officials are keeping a close eye on the situation, too. In the meantime, Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) and others in Congress have introduced a bill that would protect Bristol Bay from energy development. Says Hinchey, “Drilling for oil and gas in Bristol Bay would have devastating consequences not only for the north Pacific right whale and the diverse array of fish, birds, and other wildlife to which the bay is home but also to the area’s economy.”—Dan Oko