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EPA Restricts Mine Waste Disposal in Bristol Bay Watershed

A crucial step towards protecting the world’s most prolific salmon fishery

On Friday, the US Environmental Protection Agency released its long-awaited plan for restricting mine waste disposal in Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed — a crucial step towards protecting the world's most prolific wild salmon fishery and the 14,000 hardworking fishermen who depend on it. Alaska Native Tribes and commercial fishermen petitioned the EPA to use its authority to protect the fishery in 2010.

Salmon fishing boats in Bristol BayPhoto by Courtesy Friends of Bristol BaySalmon fishing boats in Bristol Bay. Alaska Native Tribes and commercial fishermen petitioned the EPA to use its authority to protect the fishery in 2010.

"It's been a long time coming," said Luki Akelkok, chairman of Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of ten Native Tribes and corporations, in a press statement.

The EPA has authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to restrict mine waste disposal that will harm important fisheries. Yet, EPA has used its authority sparingly — only 13 times in the 42-year history of the Clean Water Act. And, never has it been more warranted than now. As Dennis McLerran, Regional Administrator for EPA stated on Friday:

"Bristol Bay is an extraordinary ecosystem that supports an ancient fishing culture and economic powerhouse. The science is clear that mining the Pebble deposit would cause irreversible damage to one of the world's last intact salmon ecosystems."

Just how big would it be? The numbers are staggering. Based on information provided by Northern Dynasty Minerals to investors and the US Securities and Exchange Commission, mining the Pebble deposit is likely to result in:

  • A mine pit nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon.
  • Mine waste that would fill a major football stadium up to 3,900 times.
  • A mining operation that would cover an area larger than Manhattan.

The EPA's announcement has been met with strong and diverse support from Alaska Native Tribes, the commercial fishing industry, jewelers, investors, conservation groups, hunters and anglers.

“We asked the EPA to step in to protect our fishery from the Pebble Mine because the State of Alaska wasn’t listening to us,” said Kim Williams, executive director of Nunamta Aulukestai. “The future of our people and 14,000 jobs are at risk. We’re glad the EPA is doing its job.”

“Thousands of jobs in Bristol Bay rely on a healthy fishery, said Katherine Carscallen of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, which represents commercial fishermen.  "We are excited to see that the EPA also recognizes the importance of this region for its salmon, culture, and economic value to Alaska, and we will continue to work to ensure the Bay remains that way for generations to come.”

“As a jeweler whose business depends on precious metals, and therefore mining, we have nevertheless long opposed the development of new mines that threaten areas of high ecological and cultural value,” said Michael J. Kowalski, Chairman and CEO, Tiffany & Co. “We applaud the EPA for taking this vital next step under the Clean Water Act to safeguard Bristol Bay and the communities and fishery it supports.”

“We are pleased to see the EPA take this important step towards both regulatory certainty and protection for a vital natural resource,” said Jonas Kron, senior vice president at Trillium Asset Management. “Investors understand that this science based approach provides for a predictable and stable investment environment that supports sustainable economic development.”

The EPA will be taking public comment on its proposal until September 19, 2014. It's time to complete this process, and protect our nation's greatest wild salmon fishery for good. 

Bonnie Gestring
Bonnie is based in Missoula, Montana, and has been leading campaigns at Earthworks reduce the destructive impacts of mining since 2001. Bonnie blogs at: http://www.earthworksaction.org//earthblog/byauthor/5

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