EPA Resurrects Big, Salmon-Killing Alaska Mine

EPA tries to waive water-quality rules for Pebble Mine on Bristol Bay

By:  Joel Connelly
Source: The Seattle Pi

President Donald Trump's Environmental Protection Agency wants to abandon restrictions that would block a huge proposed Alaska mine, its announcement coming in the middle of the Bristol Bay salmon season.

The EPA wants to withdraw a 2014 determination, made under the Clean Water Act, that the proposed Pebble Mine would threaten the world's greatest sockeye salmon fishery and the 14,000 jobs that come with it.

The Trump EPA will take comment on the reversal over the next 90 days. And the agency can expect plenty of it.  

The about-face drew immediate, furious reaction from Alaska native groups, including the influential Bristol Bay Native Corp.

"Thousands of fishermen and women are currently in Bristol Bay participating in what is proving to be a tremendously successful commercial fishing season: That EPA is now proposing to withdraw protections for this world-class, billion-dollar resource is not sound economic or environmental policy," said Jason Metrokin, CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corp.

The Puget Sound area has a lot of fish nets in this fight. A total of more than 1,100 fishers based in the Northwest corner of the "lower 48" have licenses to fish in Bristol Bay. The annual Bristol Bay salmon harvest runs above 30 million fish.

"In one fell swoop, President Trump and his anti-science EPA administrator are threatening our salmon, our environment and our jobs:  We must protect Bristol Bay and the thousands of jobs that depend on it," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., a longtime mine critic.

During an era when hyperbole and exaggeration envelop environmental battles, scientists from the EPA's Seattle-based Region X had developed a formidable fact-based case that the mine and its 700-foot-high tailing dam posed a major danger to the Bristol Bay fishery.

The mine's likely site is at the intersection of the Nushagak and Kvichak River watersheds, two important Bristol Bay salmon spawning streams.  EPA findings of impacts included:

  • "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 habitation.
  • "Removal of 2,512 to 4,236 acres of wetlands, in the footprint of the mine, would eliminate off-channel habitat for salmon and other fishes."

The Pebble Mine project is owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals, a Canadian company.  Three giants of the mining industry -- Mitsubishi in 2011, Anglo-America in 2013, and Rio Tinto in 2014 -- have already walked away from the project.

The Pebble Partnership  had sued after the EPA issued its 2014 determination. The Trump administration promptly "settled" with the mine owners after taking office.

The EPA's action, under new administrator Scott Pruitt, is "a stab in the back" to the people of Bristol Bay, said Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay.

"The new administration is making it clear that they care more about international mining companies than the Alaskans and Americans who are dependent on Bristol Bay's global fishery," said Hurley. "By withdrawing the proposed protections for Bristol Bay, the EPA is turning its back on scientific fact, the region's indigenous people, and the millions of people who supported the EPA's (previous) action in Bristol Bay."

The Pebble Mine project, which would yield copper and gold,  has sent ripples of protest across the country.

Such major jewelry firms as Tiffany and Ben Bridge have said they would refuse to use precious metals extracted from the mine. Seattle-area chefs and restaurants have launched protests keyed to their serving of Bristol Bay salmon.

Surprisingly, however, the EPA's action on Tuesday elicited almost no response from mainstream environmental groups, several of which use Alaska issues to raise thousands of dollars from supporters, and use Seattle to stage pricey fundraisers for Democratic senators.

The Pebble Partnership would still need to get permits, and deal with findings of EPA scientists. The scientists warned, in particular, of what would happen with failure of an earthen dam that would hold toxic mine tailings.

"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.

"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.)

"If the company follows through on its latest promise to seek federal permits, the intensity of that opposition will only grow as the necessity of engaging yet again to stop it grows clearer," Joel Reynolds, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote Tuesday.

As for the Pebble Partnership, it released a statement saying:

"We have long advocated that the normal, fair and objective permitting process is the appropriate place to make decisions about this important project."