Bristol Bay, Alaska is home to the world’s largest commercial sockeye salmon fishery. Tens of millions of salmon return annually to spawn there and comprise an essential part of an Arctic ecosystem alongside caribou, moose, grizzlies, and wolves. In addition to the spectacular wildlife, the Bristol Bay community supports considerable economic activity tied to a sustainable way of life for the Native residents spanning at least 4000 years.
Salmon and Mining Waste Don’t Mix
But Bristol Bay also has lots of gold and copper the mining industry has coveted for a very long time. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the power to save the economy and ecosystem of the region by restricting mine waste under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. This authority allows the EPA to prohibit certain discharge activities whenever it determines that they would pose an unacceptable adverse impact to fisheries.
The “whenever” part is key because it means that EPA does not have to wait for the right investors to come to the table, submit a proposal, permit application, plan of operations, or until the price of gold rises. The DC Circuit recently upheld this 404(c) authority.
What’s in a Hypothetical?
In the meantime, the EPA recently completed a draft study designed to assess the potential impacts of large-scale mining on the region’s natural resources. EPA considered the typical mining activities and impacts associated with open pit mining, waste rock piles, tailings storage facilities, and so on. Looking at three potential scenarios based on a small, medium, and large mine footprint, here’s what EPA found:
- Between 24 and 90 miles of streams lost including somewhere between 5 and 22 miles of streams known to provide spawning habitats for the salmon
- Loss of between 1200-4800 acres of wetlands
- Reductions of stream flows exceeding 20% for an additional 9.3-34 miles
The EPA has plenty of experience assessing the devastating environmental impacts mining activities create. They also know with some precision the damages likely to happen to water resources, ecosystems, and economies.
Put Up or Shut Up
The Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP) is the entity seeking to mine Bristol Bay. Until recently, British corporate mining giant Anglo-American PLC (Anglo) served as a major partner until their sudden withdrawal sent shockwaves among industry watchers. Anglo’s withdrawal has not stopped mining proponents from criticizing EPA for studying mining scenarios in the absence of a permit application or plan of operations. In reality, PLP at any time could simply have chosen to share their plans for Bristol Bay with EPA. And in fact, nearly every year since 2005, they promised just that to their shareholders.
But no plan ever emerged. As Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski put it in her letter calling out PLP, “…by failing to decide whether to fully describe the project and seek permits for it, PLP have allowed EPA to fill the void…” And PLP preferred it that way. As long as they never actually submitted any formal plans, critics could continue to rail on EPA for studying scenarios never actually proposed. But once they seek a permit, their die is cast.
Fish More Valuable than Copper
As long as the ore deposit remains underground, the fight to save Bristol Bay remains. EPA should exercise their authority to save the salmon and provide certainty to the local economy and prospective mining investors. The devastation caused by a massive open pit mine would linger in perpetuity affecting not just Bristol Bay, but the commercial fishing industry everywhere in the Pacific Northwest. It’s encouraging that the national attention this mine has received has shed so much light upon the true character of the debate and what is really at stake.