EPA: Bristol Bay Pebble Mine Would be a Disaster

Story by Mark Hume with Photography by Nick Didlick

A scientific assessment of the risk of mining in Alaska’s famed Bristol Bay watershed has concluded that the release of pollutants and catastrophic accidents such as tailing dam failures would wipe out huge numbers of salmon and trout.

The report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not make any policy recommendations, but its conclusions leave no doubt that the proposed Pebble Mine and other operations should not go ahead.

“Our report concludes that large-scale mining poses risks to salmon and the tribal communities that have depended on them for thousands of years. The assessment is a technical resource for governments, tribes and the public as we consider how to address the challenges of large-scale mining and ecological protection in the Bristol Bay watershed,” Dennis McLerran, a regional administrator for the EPA said in releasing the long-awaited report.sockeye

Trout Unlimited, which has been one of the leading groups fighting to stop Pebble Mine, a proposal to extract porphyry copper, gold, and molybdenum, said the EPA must move to protect the area from destructive mining.

“The science is indisputable,” Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited said in a statement. “Bristol Bay is the world’s most important wild salmon fishery, and no place for a large-scale industrial mine”

Mr. Wood said the EPA has done its job, producing a careful analysis of the risks posed by mining, “and it’s now time for the Obama administration to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to stop the mine and protect the $1.5-billion-per-year fishery.”

The EPA did the study after alarms were sounded over the Pebble proposal to build a massive mine in the Bristol Bay watershed, which support the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Between 1990 and 2009 the annual average inshore run was approximately 37.5 million fish, with an annual commercial harvest over the same period of 25.7 million.

About half of Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon production is from the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers, which were the main focus of the EPA study. About 100,000 Chinook also return to the Nushagak. And the watershed, the EPA notes, “is especially renowned for the size and abundance of its rainbow trout,” with an estimated 183,000 caught between 2003 and 2007.

The EPA looked at a number of possible mine scenarios based on the plans filed by Northern Dynasty Minerals and baseline data from Pebble Ltd. Partnership, which proposes to mine up to 11 billion tons of ore over 70 years.

Under all scenarios, rivers ended up polluted.Sockeye Salmon

“Effects on fish resulting from habitat loss and modification would occur directly in the area of mine activity and indirectly downstream because of habitat destruction,” states the EPA. “Due to the mine footprint. . . [up to] 94 miles of streams would be lost – that is, eliminated, blocked, or dewatered.”

The study says “water quality would be diminished by uncollected leakage of tailings and waste rock leachates,” and contaminants would lead to the “rapidly induced death of many or all fish” up to 51 miles downstream.

The report predicts water treatment plant failures “based on a review of historical and currently operating mines” and predicts a severe failure scenario would kill fish 19 miles downstream.

A tailings dam failure would “bury salmon habitat under meters of fines along nearly the entire length of the North Fork Koktuli River,” causing a “near-complete loss” of fish.

The government has yet to decide whether to allow Pebble and other proposed new mines in the Bristol Bay watershed. But the EPA report has now made it clear what the result will be if the projects proceed – disaster in a salmon fishing paradise.

For more information on the EPA Bristol Bay Assessment, visit http://www.epa.gov/bristolbay