The legal term used to describe it was mineral rights.
The way it played out was like this. A family would have a few acres in East Tennessee or Southeastern Kentucky with maybe one dwelling and a barn. A representative for a coal company would show up and offer hard cash if the owner would sign over the mineral rights to his property. In the poverty ridden condition that most of my ancestors lived, a city dude offering a couple of hundred dollars in cash for what might or might not be under the ground seemed like a no brainer. A no brainer until a group from the company showed up and told these folks they had to leave because they had come to claim not what was on their property, but what was under their property.
Mines bored deep cavernous holes in the hillside to extract the black gold that would become a defining element of my regions contribution to the industrial revolution. With impunity these companies worked round the clock to pull ton after ton of coal from the land. Many of these families stayed on in mining camps where they toiled six and sometimes seven days a week raping the land they used to own.
One of the resounding effects the mines had on the region was not in what they pulled from underneath the land; it was the runoff of poisons that they polluted into the streams that flowed from the high country. Streams that once were a water source and a provider of food ran orange and red; literally everything within them died. Children were born with defects which were in part generated by mothers who were exposed to a myriad of caustics that invaded their bodies and in turn the bodies of their children as toxic levels of selenium, mercury, and arsenic seeped into the water table.
The financial boon filled the pockets of many, but a very small percentage of them actually lived in the area. Workers were paid in scrip, which were just tin tokens from which to buy from the company store which inflated the prices thereby increasing their profits as well.
It took decades for this to be turned around, and in the area in which I grew up; its effects remain on a pilfered landscape, and a few streams which have yet to recover. And it is quite possible that they will never recover. Sometimes, the impact of industry on a landscape is too great a price to pay; it is too large a burden to risk.
When the subject of the pebble mine in Alaska began to surface, I felt connected. From an environmental standpoint, I saw here in Tennessee (albeit on a much smaller scale) what could happen there and was angered to the point of action. Sometimes, and perhaps it could be argued most of the time, the best development or industrial progress is none at all. There comes a time when we must evaluate financial gain against the strong backdrop of what would be lost. In most cases what would be lost, is lost forever and triggers a chain of events that will impact much more than the particular region.
Bristol Bay is a massive area that is primarily wild untouched country. This area has been home to native Alaskan Tribes for millennia and is considered to be the largest fishery for sockeye salmon on the planet. Hundreds upon hundreds of miles in streams participate in the watershed through the Nushagak and Kvivhak rivers, and smaller streams such as the Napotoli and Stuyhok.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency began a study on the area and how a pebble mine might impact it from an ecological and environmental perspective. This was of utmost importance to the Alaskan native tribes who have entire cultures built around the lifecycle of the salmon that call the bay home. The study intended to evaluate the development and mining of this area be its impact while in operation (which was estimated to be between twenty and one hundred years), and the recovery and maintenance of the area after the mine had closed.
Personally, I have yet to visit Alaska, but from a distant perspective, to negatively impact a location where nearly half of the sockeye salmon in the world congregate with numbers going well above thirty million fish moving inshore to spawn is beyond a bad idea, it is criminal. If you also take into account the other fish species that live there (lake trout, rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, grayling, pike), the sheer numbers of fish that would be effected staggers even the broadest of imaginations. Try to wrap your mind around 200,000 rainbow trout in one watershed!
The long term economic impact would be catastrophic as entire communities who, through commercial fishing and tourism, find their subsistence would find themselves with a dwindling fish population and a constantly growing demand as well as the ever upward costs of living. There are families who have been in an economic relationship with Bristol Bay for hundreds of years. To fish its waters for sustenance and financial gain is all they know. To remove or reduce it would be to (in effect) kill entire villages.
The E.P.A. assessment states that up to 94 miles of streams would be completely lost because of their location in relation to the mine footprint. 94 miles! Can you imagine how many fish would just vanish forever?
The E.P.A. report goes on to state that reduced food resources would result in the death of many streams outside the footprint due to the loss of organic material, a reduction in winter fish habitat and by nature of design, reduce or remove vital spawning areas.
The blow that would be dealt to creatures such as the storied brown bear, or the bald eagle would also be irreparable. A reduction in food, a reduction in habitat, and once again a reduction in the local economy and way of life.
When do we say enough? When do we finally realize that once a fragile thread like Bristol Bay is severed, it is highly likely that it will not be mendable? When do we stand and say that not only is it a bad idea for the wildlife, it is a bad idea for the people? When do we stop and take a position that does not approve in any shape, form, or fashion the potential health risks involved in a huge mining operation? When do we finally realize that clean water impacts every person on this planet, and that wild places need to remain wild places?
Hopefully, that time is now.