Can Bristol Bay salmon survive big mine? EPA sets hearing

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to hold a public hearing in Seattle next Thursday on whether the world’s greatest salmon fishery — at Alaska’s Bristol Bay — can coexist with a gargantuan proposed gold, copper and molybdenum mine.

The session, on May 31 at 2 p.m. in the Federal Building, is likely to hear from Puget Sound-area fishers and restaurant owners who oppose the proposed Pebble Mine on economic as well as environmental grounds.

The $480 million annual Bristol Bay salmon fishery supports about 14,000 jobs:  Washingtonians hold 1,000 commercial fishing permits for Bristol Bay.  In 2008, for instance, Bristol Bay yielded $113 million in commercial value to people from this state.

“This public hearing is a critical step in ensuring Washingtonians’ livelihoods are protected,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. “With thousands of Washington State jobs dependent on healthy, sustainable Bristol Bay salmon, I will continue fighting to ensure a final decision is based on sound science.”

Millions of salmon return each year to Bristol Bay’s rivers and Lake Iliamna, largest body of fresh water in the 49th state.   A draft environmental assessment by EPA noted that this abundance flows from rivers that have not been blocked, channeled, dammed or diverted by acts of man.

The Kvichak River is the world’s greatest single producer of sockeye salmon.  The Nushagak River is the globe’s fourth-greatest home to Chinook salmon.  The EPA’s draft analysis reported:

“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 watersheds.”

The Alaska congressional delegation — notably Congressman-for-life Don Young — has long been in the pocket of the mining industry.  Young has vociferously objected to EPA studies at Bristol Bay.

But Cantwell has pressed the case with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.  The Washington senator has argued that the EPA should use the Clean Water Act to block location of a mine in Bristol Bay if it finds adverse impacts to water quality needed by salmon runs.