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EPA says it will scrutinize proposed Pebble Mine impacts to protect water quality in Alaska’s Bristol Bay

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Federal experts will use Clean Water Act standards to assess the potential impacts of a proposed open-pit mine in the Bristol Bay watershed.

Mining would threaten cherished and culturally critical natural resources

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — The environmental impacts of a proposed mine along the Alaska coast will be scrutinized through the lens of the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency announced last week.

The proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay could become one of the world’s largest open pit mines if it’s approved, but conservation advocates have launched a fierce campaign to halt the mine. The EPA’s announcement to apply Clean Water Act standards came as welcome news to environmentalists.

“We applaud EPA’s measured decision to begin the 404(c) process on the Pebble Mine,” said Earthjustice attorney Tom Waldo. “The global significance of this pristine region, which hosts the most productive salmon habitat in the world, warrants strong EPA action to halt a huge open-pit copper mine.

“The Native communities have understood the importance of Bristol Bay for 4000 years, deriving sustenance from the land and salmon-filled streams. To allow the Pebble Mine to move forward and damage a way of life, while threatening a world-class, billion-dollar salmon fishery, would be unacceptable,” Waldo said.

In January 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its final Bristol Bay Assessment describing potential impacts to salmon and ecological resources from proposed large-scale copper and gold mining in Bristol Bay, Alaska. The report, titled An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska, details the grave risks facing Bristol Bay’s natural resources, Native peoples, commercial fishing jobs and industry, and tremendous recreational opportunities if a mine is allowed to proceed.

According to the EPA, the mine could threaten a salmon resource “rare in its quality and productivity.” During the review process, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cannot approve a permit for the mine.

EPA officials said their decision on the Pebble Mine doesn’t reflect an agency  policy change in mine permitting.

“Extensive scientific study has given us ample reason to believe that the Pebble Mine would likely have significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “It’s why EPA is taking this step forward in our effort to ensure protection for the world’s most productive salmon fishery from the risks it faces from what could be one of the largest open pit mines on earth. This process is not something the agency does very often, but Bristol Bay is an extraordinary and unique resource,” McCarthy said.

Regional EPA administrator Dennis McLerran last week sent letters to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the State of Alaska, and the Pebble Partnership initiating action under EPA’s Clean Water Act Section 404(c) authorities.

“Bristol Bay is an extraordinary natural resource, home to some of the most abundant salmon producing rivers in the world. The area provides millions of dollars in jobs and food resources for Alaska Native Villages and commercial fishermen,” McLerran said.

“The science EPA reviewed paints a clear picture: Large-scale copper mining of the Pebble deposit would likely result in significant and irreversible harm to the salmon and the people and industries that rely on them.”

The EPA assessment showed that the proposed Pebble Mine would likely cause irreversible destruction of streams that support salmon and other important fish species, as well as extensive areas of wetlands, ponds and lakes.

In 2010, several Bristol Bay Alaska Native tribes requested that EPA take action under Clean Water Act Section 404(c) to protect the Bristol Bay watershed and salmon resources from development of the proposed Pebble Mine, a venture backed by Northern Dynasty Minerals.

The Bristol Bay watershed is home to 31 Alaska Native Villages. Residents of the area depend on salmon as a major food resource and for their economic livelihood, with nearly all residents participating in subsistence fishing. 

Bristol Bay produces nearly 50 percent of the world’s wild sockeye salmon with runs averaging 37.5 million fish each year. The salmon runs are highly productive due in large part to the exceptional water quality in streams and wetlands, which provide valuable salmon habitat.

The Bristol Bay ecosystem generates hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity and provides employment for over 14,000 full and part-time workers. The region supports all five species of Pacific salmon found in North America: sockeye, coho, Chinook, chum, and pink. In addition, it is home to more than 20 other fish species, 190 bird species, and more than 40 terrestrial mammal species, including bears, moose, and caribou.

Based on information provided by The Pebble Partnership and Northern Dynasty Minerals, mining the Pebble deposit may involve excavation of a pit up to one mile deep and over 2.5 miles wide — the largest open pit ever constructed in North America. Disposal of mining waste may require construction of three or more massive earthen tailings dams as high as 650 feet.

The Pebble deposit is located at the headwaters of Nushagak and Kvichak rivers, which produce about half of the sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay.

The objective of the Clean Water Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters. The Act emphasizes protecting uses of the nation’s waterways, including fishing.

The EPA has received over 850,000 requests from citizens, tribes, Alaska Native corporations, commercial and sport fisherman, jewelry companies, seafood processors, restaurant owners, chefs, conservation organizations, members of the faith community, sport recreation business owners, elected officials and others asking EPA to take action to protect Bristol Bay.

For information on the EPA Bristol Bay Assessment, visit: http://www2.epa.gov/bristolbay

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