EPA Warns Pebble Mine Would Harm Alaska’s Salmon

On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft of its long-awaited ecological risk assessment of large-scale mining in the pristine Nushagak River and Kvichak River watersheds of Alaska’s Bristol Bay. This 339-page scientific evaluation covers a lot of ground, but ultimately reminds us that when it comes to the environment, it’s all about habitat.

Bristol Bay supports the largest runs of wild sockeye salmon in the world, a historic complement of other wildlife species, and more than two dozen Alaska Native communities that have maintained a salmon-based culture for at least 4,000 years. According to EPA, the watershed is exceptional because of its high-quality, diverse and free-flowing aquatic habitats.

Bristol Bay also contains large deposits of copper, gold and other minerals which have attracted the interest of mining corporations. The Pebble Partnership has proposed the controversial Pebble mine, but there are other potential mining sites in the region, including several adjacent to the Pebble development. The Pebble mine, the first of this new generation, would be the largest open pit mine in North America and would churn out over a billion tons of mining waste.

Small Summer Storm by toddraden

After reviewing the data, EPA concluded that large-scale mining would have significant impacts on salmon and salmon habitat in the vicinity of the mines. EPA’s finding was hardly a surprise to anyone familiar with the dismal environmental track record of the hardrock mining industry or the richness and fragility of the Bristol Bay watershed. What was unexpected was how deftly EPA framed the debate.

The arguments about Pebble and other large mines tend to revolve around “what ifs.” What if one of the massive tailings dams collapsed and sent a tidal wave of toxic waste down the watershed? What if industry applied state-of-the-art technologies and avoided the problems seen in older mines?

EPA addressed these “what ifs” but first reminded us that there is a more fundamental question: even if there is no human or engineering failure, is it worth developing Pebble and other large mines if it means losing extensive areas of important aquatic habitat? According to the risk assessment, the construction and routine operations of one Pebble-like mine would destroy between 55 and 87 miles of streams and between 2,512 and 4,386 acres of wetlands. These are huge numbers and essentially represent the inevitable cost of developing large mines in a region laced by a system of prolific wetlands, streams and rivers.

So, is it worth degrading the sustainable salmon fishery, rich wildlife, and Native cultures of Bristol Bay in order to develop mines that will play out in decades? Not to me or approximately 80% of the residents of the watershed. Even if I assume that mining companies could do things like build tailings reservoirs that last forever, the unavoidable destruction of aquatic ecosystems due to construction and routine operations–in this unique region–is too great to justify.

My hat’s off to EPA for conducting this rigorous assessment. Now I urge the agency to use its discretion under the Clean Water Act and take the steps needed to protect the public’s interest in the waters, fish, wildlife and communities of Bristol Bay.  At least in this instance, large-scale mining isn’t worth the tradeoff.

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