THE WILKES-BARRE area has been my home for many years. A Midwesterner by birth, I also have lived in Europe and then northern Minnesota. My wife and I came here for a number of reasons, including the pride that people take in their ethnic heritage.
As a protodeacon in the Orthodox Church, I perhaps notice houses of worship more than most people. In the same neighborhood as Holy Resurrection Cathedral, where I serve, there are Ukrainian, Byzantine and Polish Catholic churches, and a Slovak Lutheran church. In a nation that prides itself as a melting pot, in Wilkes-Barre we also value our cultural lineages.
I, likewise, value the diversity of the natural world and the millions of creatures that God has put on Earth. With all the environmental threats now upon us – polluted air, dirty water and now apparent climate change – I worry for all of us, human and nonhuman alike.
Thus I've become doubly concerned about a new environmental threat in Alaska, one that could destroy an indigenous culture and a wild fishery. The Orthodox Church first came to North America more than 250 years ago in Alaska. I recently accompanied our Alaskan archbishop and the Lutheran bishop from Seattle to Washington, D.C., as they address this issue with the White House and members of the Congress and Senate.
If you enjoy eating wild salmon, then you should know about Bristol Bay, Alaska, the home to much of the wild salmon that makes its way to our tables. These sockeye salmon need pristine waters to live, grow and reproduce. Bristol Bay offers such waters, truly a gift from God.
It's not only the fish that thrive in the Bristol Bay. For thousands of years, Native Alaskans have lived there, harvesting the salmon to feed their families. This community – and commercial fishermen – fish sustainably, harvesting enough, but not too much, salmon to feed their families and to sell to the world beyond the bay.
Now this extraordinary place is threatened by a proposed mine. If developed, Pebble Mine would produce copper, gold and molybdenum. It would be North America's largest open-pit mine, and it would be built in the headwaters of Bristol Bay. Such mines require the building of massive dams to contain the toxic byproducts. And despite best intentions, the toxics often leach well beyond the mine site.
Northeastern Pennsylvanians know this all too well, with our miles upon miles of dead streams that run orange, poisoned by coal tailings. Our waste coal piles bear silent witness to the unintended consequences of mining.
Alaska's Pebble Mine, if built, would almost invariably leach toxic waste into the pristine waters of Bristol Bay. It's hard to imagine the salmon – and the Native Alaskan culture dependent on them – surviving the mine intact. Alaska is prone to earthquakes, which increases the odds of dam failure.
International companies own the land where the mine would be. They claim it would create a couple thousand construction jobs and then a thousand ongoing jobs during the decade or two the mine would operate.
But Bristol Bay is a $500 million fishery, supporting 14,000 commercial and recreational jobs. It makes no sense to risk 14,000 permanent, sustainable jobs for 2,000 short-term jobs – and the high likelihood of the fishery collapsing.
The vast majority of Native Alaskans oppose Pebble Mine. They know of the failed promises that have come with so many proposed mines. None of us needs another environmental disaster to clean up with funds that don't exist.
Let's be smarter this time. Let's prevent the damage before it happens. The Clean Water Act gives us the legal authority to stop Pebble Mine from being built – if we have the political will to do so.
The proposed Pebble Mine is a really bad idea. Irreplaceable treasures are at stake: a unique culture and a world-class, sustainable fishery. The mine makes no sense economically, and it would damage God's sacred gift of creation.
Don't let the Clean Water Act get watered down by Congress. Let's make sure Pebble Mine never comes to be.
Protodeacon Sergei Kapral serves at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral, Wilkes-Barre.