Bristol Bay and EPA Assessments

Taryn Kiekow, Senior Policy Analyst, Marine Mammal Protection Project, Santa Monica, California

On Wednesday, EPA released its peer-reviewed, scientific “Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska” and concluded that large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses “significant” – and even “catastrophic” – risks to the ecosystem, salmon, wildlife and Alaska Native cultures. 

Media surrounding the assessment has been intense.  Perhaps not paparazzi-level intense, but remarkable, nonetheless, for a scientific report.  And for good reason.  Pebble Mine – a giant gold and copper mine proposed at the headwaters of Bristol Bay – would risk the region’s legendary salmon runs, which are integral to its economy and cultural heritage.

Here is a sample of what's being said -- by the press, Bristol Bay stakeholders, and others:

Washington Post: “EPA: Mining would destroy fishery, villages, part of watershed in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.”  “A large-scale mining operation in Alaska’s Bristol Bay would destroy a significant portion of the watershed, a pristine fishery that supports nearly half the world’s sockeye salmon and dozens of Native villages that have relied on fishing for thousands of years… The long-awaited final assessment on potential impacts of mining in the western Alaska region, compiled over three years by the Environmental Protection Agency at the request of area tribes, dealt a serious blow to a Canadian company’s ambitions to dig one of the world’s largest pit mines to extract resources from the mineral-rich land.” [Washington Post, 1/15/14]

Washington Post Blog: “A big test for Obama on the environment.”  “Depending on the scenario, the EPA report estimates that the Pebble mine could create up to 11 billion metric tons of waste rock, and destroy up to 94 miles of streams, 4,900 acres of wetlands, and 450 acres of ponds and lakes. That’s more than enough to justify halting the mine either on economic or on the environmental grounds of protecting key salmon habitat. The question is whether the EPA will be willing to endure a political backlash from enraged corporate gazillionaires and their backers in Congress and the media…And the truth is that right now the EPA is quite possibly the most critically important organization in the entire world. EPA employees shouldn’t fear to defend the collective commons aggressively, confident that President Obama has their backs. The fate of this project will tell us how confident the EPA feels.” (Washington Post (blog), 1/15/14]

Associated Press: “Robert Redford-opposed mine could devastate Alaska's Bristol Bay region.”  “A government report indicates a large-scale copper and gold mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region could have devastating effects on the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery and adversely affect Alaska Natives, whose culture is built around salmon.”   {Salt Lake Tribune, 1/15/14]

Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) President and Chief Executive Officer Jason Metrokin: “From the very beginning, EPA was in Bristol Bay because our federally recognized Tribes and Native organizations, including BBNC, asked them to be. With today’s release, science has weighed-in: Bristol Bay, its existing jobs and way of life could be irreparably damaged by a large-scale mine that is the size and scope of the Pebble project—and therefore, our fish, our people and our cultures must be protected. BBNC supports responsible development where it can be done without causing unacceptable risks to the people, cultures and fishing economy of our region. The proposed Pebble mine is not such a project. It’s time for the agency to initiate a 404(c) action to protect Bristol Bay.” [Statement, 1/15/14]

Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association Executive Director Bob Waldrop:  “Thousands of hardworking commercial fishermen rely on the Bristol Bay fishery, and we’re proud to provide a sustainable and healthy source of food for the nation.  Our industry is the economic engine for the region, and we’re calling on the Obama Administration to take immediate steps to protect it from all large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay drainages.”  [Statement, 1/15/14]

Alaska Dispatch: “EPA report predicts Pebble Mine could devastate Alaska salmon runs.”  It's the latest blow in recent weeks in the ongoing quest to develop Pebble Mine. The massive open-pit mine project would be one of the largest in North America….Last month, Rio Tinto, the London-based mining group that owns 19 percent of the Northern Dynasty's shares, said it was considering pulling out of the project upon further review. Another key player, Anglo American, announced in September of 2013 that it would take a $300 million hit to pull out of the project, in which it had a 50 percent share.  [Alaska Dispatch, 1/15/14]

The Guardian: “Alaska's Bristol Bay Region could be devastated by mining, EPA report finds.”  “Pebble Mine is one of the most hotly contested industrial projects under consideration – second perhaps only to the Keystone XL pipeline – with opposition radiating far beyond Alaska.  Robert Redford and other high-profile opponents have urged the EPA for three years to shut down the mine. Jewelry chains have said they will not use gold from the mine.  The opposition has taken a toll. Last year, one of the partners in Pebble Bay pulled out of the project.”  [The Guardian, 1/15/14]

Tiffany & Co. Chairman and CEO Michael J. Kowalski:  "There are some places where mining cannot be done without forever damaging landscapes, wildlife, businesses, and communities.  Bristol Bay is one such place. We, along with many of our fellow jewelers, urge the EPA to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to safeguard Bristol Bay and the communities and fishery it supports." [Statement, 1/15/14]

PBS FRONTLINE: EPA: “‘Alaska Gold’ Mine a Threat to Salmon Fisheries.”  “The EPA report, which was independently peer reviewed by 12 scientists with expertise in engineering, biology and ecology, found that the mine would cause a lasting threat to the area’s delicate ecosystem, both through routine mining operations and potential failures, such as toxic leakage, truck accidents and waste containment disasters.” [FRONTLINE, 1/16/14]

Independent Scientific Peer Reviewers of EPA’s Watershed Assessment: “Reviewer satisfied.”  EPA’s   final Watershed Assessment was lauded as “state of science” by reviewer William Stubblefield. Improvements were commended as “quantum leaps” by reviewer Charles Slaughter. And Roy Stein, peer review chair, explained that he was impressed with how EPA took the time to work with the peer review team over the two peer review periods, and that “EPA has struck just the right balance with regard to summarizing the state of the probable mine impacts on the ecological and cultural resources of the Bristol Bay Watershed.” [EPA Response to Peer Review Comments, released 1/15/14]

Wall Street Journal: “EPA Critical of Alaska Pebble Mine Project.  Project Could Have 'Significant' Impact on Salmon, Native Communities.”   “The report said that large-scale gold and copper mining in the watershed poses risks to the Bristol Bay fishery, the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, which produces about half of the world's wild supply.” [Wall Street Journal, 1/15/14] 

Seattle Post Intelligencer: “EPA: Huge Alaska mine ‘poses risks’ to Bristol Bay salmon.”  “The proposed Pebble Mine has sent ripples of protest from native villages in Bristol Bay, to Puget Sound area fishing boat owners, to New York hedge fund managers who have urged divestment in the controversial project. ‘EPA’s assessment is clear:  The proposed Pebble Mine poses a direct threat to Bristol Bay salmon and the Pacific Northwest jobs that depend on them,’ said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.” [Seattle Post Intelligencer, 1/15/14]

Anchorage Daily News: “EPA: Pebble mine poses significant risk to salmon.”  “Tribes and other Alaska Native groups in 2010 petitioned EPA to block the mine even before it applies for its main federal permit, through a rarely used section of the Clean Water Act. Under section 404(c), EPA can prohibit an area from being used for dredged or fill material if it will have ‘an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas, wildlife, or recreational areas.’…Instead of a quick veto, EPA did the study, operating under a different section of law. ‘We owe them a response to the petition,’ [EPA Regional Administrator Dennis] McLerran said. ‘This is an issue that has weighed heavily on people in the watershed, on all sides of the issue.’" [ADN, 1/15/14]

EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLerran: “Large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses significant risk.”  In conference call with reporters, Dennis McLerran said his agency’s assessment concluded that “large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses significant near- and long-term risk to salmon, wildlife and Native Alaska cultures.”   [ABC News, 1/15/14]

Trillium Assets Management Senior Vice President Jonas Kron: "Anglo American's withdrawal from the project highlights significant business and investment risks.  We urge the EPA to take immediate steps to initiate the 404(c) process to protect he fishery and provide regulatory clarity." [Statement, 1/15/14]

EPA Senior Scientist Jeff Frithsen: “Major Catastrophic Impacts.” Piles of mining waste "higher than the Washington Monument are likely to be in place for hundreds and thousands of years, long beyond the mine itself."  The failure of these tailings dams, which would be used to hold back billions of tons of toxic waste from the mining, "would have major catastrophic impacts on fish and fish habitats impacting large areas for decades."  [Los Angeles Times, 1/15/14]

NRDC Western Director Joel Reynolds: “This is a scientific indictment of the Pebble Mine – or any other large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed. The assessment documents what we’ve feared for years—Pebble Mine would destroy the world-class wild salmon fishery, cost jobs and endanger the communities and wildlife that depend on it.  The time for study is over.  It’s now up to EPA to take regulatory action to stop the Pebble Mine. It’s time for EPA to protect American jobs and a vibrant salmon industry by taking action under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to permanently protect the fishery and water resources of Bristol Bay – and the economic engine and environmental, social, and cultural resources that they sustain.” [Statement, 1/15/14]

Photo Credit: EPA Bristol Bay Assesment/shutterstock