Bristol Bay salmon: EPA lists what a big mine could do

Source: Seattle PI

As Seattle welcomed the spring’s first shipment of Copper River salmon flown in from up north, a draft federal report warned of potential catastrophic impacts if a huge open-pit mine goes in near Alaska’s — and the world’s — greatest salmon fishery.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 10, based in Seattle, after working on the project for 15 months, released its preliminary assessment of the proposed Pebble Mine project near Bristol Bay.

“This draft report validates the concerns of the Alaska and Washington fishing fleets that the proposed Pebble Mine could have devastating impacts on the Pacific Northwest’s maritime economy,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

And how!

The Bristol Bay fishery amounts to $480 million each year and supports 14,000 full- and part-time jobs.  As an example, the Kvichak River is the world’s greatest producer of sockeye salmon, the Nushagak River the fourth-largest source of Chinook salmon in the world.

“The Pebble deposit, the most likely site for near-term large-scale mining development in the region, is located at the intersection of the Nushagak and Kvichak River watersheds,” says the EPA report.

Two firms, notably the giant mining company Anglo American plc, are looking at deposits in the region:  The estimated yield could come to 107.4 million ounces of gold, 80.6 billion pounds of copper, and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum.

While stressing that its report is preliminary — and “not for quotation” — the EPA’s draft lays out in plain English what the development of one resource could do to another.  Some quotes:

– “Elimination or blocked streams under the minimum and maximum mine footprints would result in the loss of 55 to 87.5 miles of possible spawning or rearing habitats for coho, Chinook, and sockeye salmon, rainbow trout and Dolly Varden.

– “Reduced flow resulting from water retention for use in mine operations, ore processing, transport and other processes would reduce the amount and quality of fish habitat.

– “Removal of 2,512 to 4,286 acres of wetlands, in the footprint of the mine, would eliminate off-channel habitat for salmon and other fishes.”

The EPA draft report goes on to discuss possible accidents, such as failure of the high earthen dam designed to hold back toxic mine tailings.  It says:

“More than 30 kilometers (19 miles) of salmonoid stream would be destroyed and more streams and rivers would have greatly degraded habitat for decades . . . The range of estimated dam failures is wide, reflecting the great uncertainty concerning such failures.”

Spills into streams are another major area of concern.  The report says:

“Fish and invertebrates would experience acute exposure to toxic water and chronic exposure to toxic sediment in a stream and potentially extending to Iliamna Lake.”

Iliamna Lake is Alaska’s largest body of fresh water.  The lake and river system are home to a world-renowned fly-in sport fishery, as well as a large native subsistence fishery.

The “exceptional quality of Bristol Bay watersheds’ fish populations” comes largely as a result of the fact that streams are “untouched by human-engineered structures and flow management controls,” the EPA concluded.

Bristol Bay’s abundant fish support creatures other than those with two legs.  “Brown bears are abundant in the Nushagak and Kvichak River watersheds,” the EPA reported.  It added that the rivers support large moose and caribou populations as well.

The EPA intends to seek public comment as well as reaction from players — the mine builder as well as sport and commercial fisheries interests, and Bristol Bay native groups which passionately oppose the proposed mine.

“I’m glad the EPA will be holding a public meeting in Seattle that will enable Washington to weigh in on the potential impact of any large scale development,” Cantwell said.

Curiously, the EPA gave no notice of its environmental assessment to Seattle-area media outlets.  An estimated 1,000 people from Washington fish commercially in Bristol Bay each year.

Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council stressed that decisions on the future of Bristol Bay and its rivers — most of them under public ownership, with two big national parks nearby — should be of concern far beyond Alaska.

“The Bristol Bay watershed is a natural resource — a natural ecosystem unsurpassed anywhere in the world — too important to risk,” said Reynolds.