Science In Defense of a National Treasure: EPA Releases Draft Assessment of Large-Scale Mining (aka the Pebble Mine) in the Bristol Bay Watershed

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took a major step forward today in its review of petitions to intervene in the intensifying battle over the proposed Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska.  After fifteen months of study,  the agency released in draft form for public comment an extensive scientific assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed, undertaken to determine the potential impacts of large-scale mining on salmon and other fish populations, wildlife, development, and Alaska Native communities and culture in the region. 

And those impacts are devastating:  The destruction of fish spawning and rearing streams; elimination of thousands of acres of wetland; reduction in the amount and quality of fish habitat due to water removal; and a whole host of other impacts, both direct and indirect. If the Pebble Mine fails, salmon and other fish species would be devastated – forever.  Even assuming no failure -- an assumption without basis in empirical fact -- the impacts on pristine salmon spawning habitat will be irreparable.

The agency initiated this massive assessment in February 2011 at the specific request of nine federally-recognized tribes in the Bristol Bay region, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (a multi-billion dollar developer and the largest land-owner in the Bristol Bay region, representing over 9,000 native shareholders), commercial and sports fishing interests, and other concerned stakeholders.  

At the heart of the matter is the Pebble Mine – a giant gold and copper mine proposed to be sited at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed.  The countless meandering streams that make up the watershed feed one of the most productive wild salmon fisheries in the world, supporting valuable fishing and tourism-related industry, indigenous people, and a vast array of wildlife.

The corporate partnership behind the Pebble Mine – the Pebble Limited Partnership, comprising the foreign mining giants Anglo American, Northern Dynasty, and Rio Tinto – have actively opposed EPA’s work on the Watershed Assessment released today. 

In 2010, the Obama Administration recognized the unique importance of the region, barring offshore oil and gas exploration in Bristol Bay.  Interior Secretary Ken Salazar described Bristol Bay as “a national treasure that we must protect” and “too special” to drill.

In today’s announcement, EPA reiterated the importance of Bristol Bay and noted these key findings:

  • All five species of North American Pacific salmon are found in Bristol Bay. The Bristol Bay watershed supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. The Kvichak River produces more sockeye salmon than any other river in the world. The Nushagak River is the fourth largest producer of Chinook salmon in North America.
  • Bristol Bay’s wild salmon fishery and other ecological resources provide at least 14,000 full and part-time jobs and is valued at about $480 million annually.
  • The average annual run of sockeye salmon is about 37.5 million fish.
  • Bristol Bay provides habitat for numerous animal species, including 35 fish species, more than 190 bird species, and 40 animal species.

EPA also examined the importance of Bristol Bay salmon in sustaining the traditional subsistence lifestyle of Alaska Native villages in the watershed.

The agency's Watershed Assessment will provide local, state, and federal decision-makers with science-based information on how to best protect the Bristol Bay watershed, its world-class salmon fishery, and the people, communities, commerce, and wildlife that depend on the salmon.

NRDC joins the Alaska Natives, Bristol Bay residents and businesses, and commercial and subsistence fishermen of the region in applauding EPA’s decision to conduct a thorough and scientific review.  We will review and comment in detail on the agency’s Watershed Assessment during the public comment process that begins today. 

And we fully support any future decision by the agency – indeed, we urge EPA -- to invoke their authority under the Clean Water Act to proactively protect the region from the inevitably devastating impacts of the Pebble Mine.  The Bristol Bay watershed is a natural resource -- a natural ecosystem unsurpassed anywhere in the world -- too important to risk.