EPA: Huge Alaska mine ‘poses risks’ to Bristol Bay salmon

By:  Seattle P.I. – Joel Connelly
Source: Seattle PI

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.

Cantwell  has opposed the project and urged EPA to stand behind its scientists.

“This report provides definitive evidence detailing the devastating impacts the Pebble Mine would have on the Northwest maritime economy,” Cantwell added.

The proposed mine has produced a head-on collision of a resource sustained by clean water and wild habitat, and the minerals that lie beneath.

The Bristol Bay fishery, as of 2009, was worth $485 million and sustained 14,000 full and part-time jobs, according to the EPA.  The big Alaska watershed accounts for 46 percent of the world’s sockeye salmon catch.

Between 1990 and 2009, the average return to Bristol Bay rivers was 37.5 million sockeye salmon, with an average commercial harvest of 25.7 million.  The salmon runs also sustain a large Native and sport fishery.

The mine project would be located near the headwaters of two of the most productive of those rivers, the Nushagak and the Kvichak.

“Approximately half of Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon production is from the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds, the main area of focus for this assessment,” EPA reported.

The Vancouver-based firm Northern Dynasty, which is exploring the mine project, estimates the area contains 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107 million ounces of god, and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum.

The company has argued that the EPA should not have assessed impacts because there is not as yet any final proposal for the project.

“Publication of the final watershed assessment (by EPA) is really the final chapter in a very sad story . . . We believed the EPA set out to do a flawed analysis of the Pebble Project and they certainly succeeded,” Northern Dynasty President Ron Thiessen said in a statement.

Dennis McLerran, regional administrator for Seattle-based Region 10 of the EPA, outlined findings, saying:

“Our report concludes that large scale mining poses risks to salmon and the tribal communities that have depended on them for thousands of years.”  (Native villages in the Bristol Bay region asked the EPA to assess impacts.)

Specifically, the EPA found:

–Construction and operation of the mine, depending on size, could impact 24 to 94 miles of salmon supporting streams and 1,300 to 5,300 acres of wetlands, ponds and lakes.  It could alter the stream flow in an additional 5 to 33 miles of rivers.

–Extensive quantities of mine waste would need to be collected, stored, treated and managed long after the mine’s operation.  The open pit mine could operate as a little as 25 years, or as long as 78 years.

–The mine would require an extensive system to shield toxic tailings from salmon streams.  “Some failure of water collection and treatment systems” is likely during the operation of the Pebble Project, EPA concluded.

–The mine would require construction of a lengthy haul road across streams and wetlands supplying the Bristol Bay fishery.

The risks are too great, Cantwell argued.  “The future of Bristol Bay must be determined by science, not politics,” she said.  “And the science clearly shows that the mine would damage up to 94 miles of salmon streams and up to 5,300 acres of wetlands.”

Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., added:  “The EPA’s assessment of the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay is unequivocal in its conclusions that the mine could devastate the region and have long lasting damaging consequences on Washington’s economy, the environment and the fishing industry.”

Bob Waldrop of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association argued that the project has cast a pall of uncertainty over the area.

“Fishermen from coast to coast understand how important Bristol Bay salmon are to our nation’s fisheries and economy,” he said.  “The Bristol Bay fishermen are weary and exasperated by the economic cloud of uncertainty that Pebble brings to our world class fishery.”

The League of Conservation Voters, in Washington, D.C., urged EPA to “use its authority” under the federal Clean Water Act to “finally reject this dangerous project once and for all.”

McLerran was not going that far.

“The assessment is a technical resource for governments, tribes and the public as we consider how to address the challenge of large scale mining and ecological protection of the Bristol Bay watershed,” said the regional EPA chief.