Good News for a Change: It’s Looking Like the Pebble Mine May Never Be Built

EPA action and bipartisan opposition could permanently block proposed mine at the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay

If you’ve eaten wild salmon, chances are good it was caught in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. That’s because Bristol Bay and its watershed is the largest remaining wild sockeye salmon fishery in the world.

Bristol bayPhoto by Emma ForsbergBristol Bay’s salmon fishery is the economic lifeblood of the region.

For many thousands of years the fishery has supported the ecosystem – including subsistence Native Alaskan communities – that grew around it. But it’s not just wildlife and Native Alaskans that rely on the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. It’s also the economic lifeblood of the region. Salmon-dependent commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, and tourism combine to account for 14,000+ jobs. A peer reviewed Environmental Protection Agency study estimates those jobs and other economic benefits from the fishery annually generate $480 million.

And because salmon – properly managed as they are now – are an annually renewing resource, that’s 14,000 jobs and $480 million each year, forever.

Unfortunately this global treasure is under threat.

Northern Dynasty, a junior Canadian mining company wants to dig what would be North America’s largest open pit mine – the Pebble gold/copper/molybdenum mine – in the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed. Basically, Northern Dynasty wants to mine, and dump toxic mining waste, on top of a good portion of the waters where Bristol Bay’s salmon return every year to spawn.

If the Pebble Mine sounds like a colossally bad idea, that’s because:

  • The EPA identified up to 94 stream miles that would be destroyed by the mine.
  • According to Northern Dynasty, the mine could generate more than 10 billion tons of mine waste (tailings).
  • Tailings would be stored forever behind some of the largest earthen dams ever built (more than 700 feet tall).
  • These earthen dams would be built in a very seismically active area, where a magnitude 8 earthquake occurs every decade or so.
  • Because of sulfides in the ore, Pebble would generate acid and leach heavy metals, which would likely be released into the watershed.
  • The mine would generate these acids in perpetuity – long after the mine had closed.
  • The ore deposit is directly underneath salmon spawning habitat.
  • Salmon are highly sensitive to pollution. Exposure to even miniscule increases in copper in freshwater (parts per billion), for example, interferes with their sense of smell, impairing their ability to locate spawning grounds and identify predators.
  • Building the mine, and the roads and infrastructure required by it, would open up to more development areas that are now wilderness.

In Alaska, where support for resource development ranks high, the depth and breadth of the opposition to the Pebble Mine is remarkable and unprecedented, encompassing Native Alaskans, commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen, seafood chefs, outdoor retailers, conservationists, churches, jewelry retailers, and environmentalists.

And there’s bipartisan political opposition to the mine, too. A Republican former Alaskan state Senate president opposes Pebble, as does Democratic Alaska Senator Mark Begich, as did former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. In the words of Senator Begich, Pebble is “too big, and the wrong mine in the wrong place.” Or as Republican former Alaska governor Jay Hammond said, “the only place worse to put a mine would be my living room.”

Thanks in no small part to this unprecedented coalition, it’s increasingly looking like the Pebble Mine may never be built.

Earlier this year the EPA announced it is invoking its Clean Water Act authority under section 404c to consider permanently prohibiting or restricting mine waste disposal into the Bristol Bay watershed. While EPA’s action is not a final decision to block the mine, it amounts to a tentative announcement that it intends to do so. The US Army Corps cannot take any steps to grant mine permits during the 404c review. At worst it’s a considerable reprieve for Bristol Bay.

But I’m cautiously optimistic that the final decision will block the mine – in part because the strong coalition opposed to it, and in part because the review will rely heavily upon EPA’s peer-reviewed scientific assessment of the impacts of large scale mining on the Bristol Bay watershed. That assessment, while not making a policy recommendation, is crystal clear: building the Pebble Mine is not compatible with protecting the Bristol Bay salmon fishery and the people that rely upon it.

Understandably, Alaska Native leaders are ecstatic with EPA’s decision to invoke its Clean Water Act authority. “We are happy with the EPA’s decision to take this crucial step. Now we’re one big step closer to protecting our salmon, our resources and our people from the proposed Pebble mine,” Kimberly Williams, director of Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of ten Bristol Bay Native Tribes and Native Village corporations, said in a statement.

More remarkably, prominent metals consumers – jewelry makers and retailers –are happy as well. “Tiffany & Co. commends the EPA for its efforts to protect Bristol Bay and the thousands of jobs that depend on a healthy, sustainable fishery,” says the company’s CEO, Michael Kowalski.

It’s not over ‘til it’s over.

This review is not a slam-dunk. The EPA has gone through the Clean Water Act 404c review process 29 times in the history of the Clean Water Act, and moved forward with restrictions in 13 cases.

There are more than a few steps in the review, and public involvement is part of the process:

  • Step 1 – Consultation period with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and owners of the site (already complete).
  • Step 2 – Publication of Proposed Determination, including proposed prohibitions or restrictions on mining the Pebble deposit, in the Federal Register for public comment and one or more public hearings.
  • Step 3 – Review of public comments and development of Recommended Determination by EPA Regional Administrator to Assistant Administrator for Water at EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC.
  • Step 4 – Second consultation period with the Army Corps and site owners and development of Final Determination by Assistant Administrator for Water, including any final prohibitions or restrictions on mining the Pebble deposit.

The review is expected to take more than a year.

Unfortunately, while EPA deliberates Pebble’s backers aren’t silently waiting. Instead they’re trying to block science-based policy decisions by lobbying Congress to strip EPA’s authority to use its Clean Water Act authority to stop the mine.

So keep your fingers crossed for Bristol Bay, its people and its salmon. In the meantime you can help by sending a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy urging her to follow the science and common sense and block the Pebble Mine proposal.

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