EPA: Poisoning the Largest Remaining Salmon Run Is Not a Great Idea

Pebble Mine in Alaska would ruin 100 miles of stream near Bristol Bay, according to an assessment from the Environmental Protection Agency.

A woman kisses a sockeye salmon that she has caught in Bristol Bay, Alaska, near the site of the proposed Pebble Mine project. (Photo: Michael Melford/National Geographic/Getty Images)

May 2, 2013· 2 MIN READ
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison Fairbrother has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

Mining companies that have their sights set on copper and gold deposits worth half a trillion dollars in southwest Alaska received more bad news on Friday, April 26. The Environmental Protection Agency said the development of the proposed Pebble Mine there would destroy nearly 100 miles of streams and up to 4,800 acres of wetlands.

The toxic waste would outlive every one of us, and may last forever.

The EPA’s revised draft assessment, which considered independent scientific review as well as 233,000 public comments, found that Pebble Mine would devastate the natural habitat of the 37.5 million sockeye salmon that spawn annually in the Bristol Bay watershed—the largest remaining wild salmon population on the planet.

Fishermen, environmentalists, and Native communities in Alaska are largely united in opposition to Pebble Mine, citing the sustainable salmon fishery in Bristol Bay that generates $480 million in annual economic impact and supports 14,000 fishing and processing jobs.

Objections to Pebble Mine were so strong that in 2010, nine tribal governments based in Bristol Bay petitioned the EPA to halt the project even before mine developers submitted official permit applications, according to the Mining Journal.

Canadian-based Northern Dynasty Ltd. and Anglo-American PLC, a British mining company, hold the mineral rights to Pebble mine through a joint venture called the Pebble Partnership, which hopes to extract billions of tons of raw ore from a proposed two-mile long, 2,000-foot deep hole—what would become the largest open-pit mine in the world.

In the process, Pebble Mine would produce 10 billion tons of contaminated waste. In its revised assessment, the EPA expressed concern about the massive amount of waste, stating that it would “require management over centuries or even in perpetuity.” In other words, the toxic waste would outlive every one of us, and may last forever.

The EPA’s revised draft assessment comes seven months after a panel of 12 independent scientists found that the EPA had underestimated the risks associated with the development of the mine on Alaskan lands and wildlife in the agency’s initial assessment.

At the time, scientists expressed dismay at the proposal’s shortsightedness. “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),” Dr. Roy Stein, of Ohio State University, and chair of the EPA’s independent review panel, wrote in the peer review document.

“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).”

After the EPA released its revisions on Friday, fishermen in Bristol Bay celebrated the findings. “The EPA’s assessment basically dots the i’s and crosses the t’s of what we’ve known all along,” said Brett Veerhusen, a commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay. “The science shows unequivocally that the Pebble Mine will cause adverse habitat impacts on salmon, which will affect our commercial fisheries downstream,” Veerhusen told TakePart.

But a chorus of industry voices and mining-friendly legislators denounced the assessment.

Pebble Partnership CEO John Shively wrote that “the EPA has not changed its deeply flawed approach of creating and evaluating a completely hypothetical mine plan, instead of waiting until a real, detailed mine plan is submitted to regulators as part of a complete permit application.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) echoed Shively’s statement. “Attempts to prejudge any mining project before the full details of that proposal are submitted to the EPA for review is unacceptable,” she said on Friday in a statement.

The EPA’s draft assessment on Pebble Mine is now open for public comment through May 31. All comments will be reviewed and another independent scientific review conducted before the EPA finalizes its assessment, likely by the end of this year. When completed, the document will be used to determine whether to issue a permit allowing Pebble Mine to open for business.

“I would implore people to make a comment. During the last watershed assessment, we generated close to a quarter million comments. That’s an unprecedented number, and almost 94 percent of those comments filed thanked the EPA for saving Bristol Bay,” Veerhusen said. “We’re aiming this go round to get up to half a million.”