EPA Told to Strengthen Its Report on Proposed Pebble Mine Project in Bristol Bay

The Pebble Mine project puts the future of 37 million sockeye salmon is at stake.

pebble mine project

Setnet fisherman trap salmon in Alaska's Bristol Bay near the site of the proposed Pebble Mine project. (Photo: Michael Melford/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Environmentalists and fishermen embroiled over the controversial Pebble Mine project in Alaska’s Bristol Bay may have gotten some heartening news Friday; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its final peer-reviewed report on potential mining impacts in the sensitive watershed, home to the largest wild sockeye salmon fishery in the world.

A panel of 12 independent scientists and experts said the EPA’s draft study  underestimated the risks of the proposed Pebble Mine project. They recommended the agency go back and strengthen a number of their findings, including:

• How mining may impact wildlife beyond salmon

• Better assessment of the risks associated with potential spills from “day-to­day” operations

• Stronger wording throughout the report

Dr. Roy Stein, Ohio State University and chair of the review panel, was blunt in his comments:

“Some irony exists as one considers the trade-off between salmon and this mining operation (and make no mistake, we cannot have both mining and productive salmon stocks in the Bristol Bay watershed). We are trading sustainable salmon stocks that, with science-driven management, rigorous regulatory oversight, and limited exploitation, should provide salmon literally 1000s of years into the future against the development of a mine that will provide minerals in the relative short term (within 25 to 78 years).”

Those comments were music to the ears of environmentalists and fishermen who have been fighting the Pebble Mine project project for years. They say that building a mine in the heart of a sensitive landscape—home to over 37 million sockeye salmon is too risky, both for the fish and the 14,000 jobs that rely on them.

“It’s the biggest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, in a country that has a sizable seafood deficit. It’s a major part of our fish portfolio,” Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish, tells TakePart. “The potential jobs from the mine are short term. The mine will be mined out in less than 100 years, while the 14,000 fishing jobs could go on in perpetuity as long as the salmon fishery is healthy.”

The mining companies, including Northern Dynasty Minerals, Ltd. and Anglo American, say there’s a significant amount of gold, copper and molybdenum in the area, and that the proposed Pebble Mine project will create much-needed jobs and access to valuable minerals we use in everything from construction to cars.

Earlier this year, Alaska’s Republican administration warned the EPA had no authority to conduct the watershed assessment, but the EPA countered that it is within its authority under the Clean Water Act, and can ultimately veto the Pebble Mine project.

A recent change in management at Anglo American also raises questions about the future of the proposed Pebble Mine project. The company’s chief executive, Cynthia Carroll, stepped down from her position at the beginning of the month.

“Cynthia Carroll promised that Anglo American wouldn’t develop the Pebble mine if it didn’t have community support,” Bobby Andrew, a subsistence fishermen and spokesperson for Nunamta Aulukestai, told The Cordova Times. “We’re left to wonder just who is accountable to the guarantees that Anglo made to Bristol Bay residents.”

All angst aside, the EPA’s 193-page assessment could be the last word when it comes to protecting the Bristol Bay. Taryn Kiekow puts it this way for the Natural Resource Defense Council:

“EPA’s draft Watershed Assessment provides more than enough information to find with absolute certainty that large-scale mining (like Pebble Mine) in the Bristol Bay watershed would pose enormous, irreversible harm to the watershed’s natural resources – and the people and wildlife that depend on those resources.”

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