January 16, 2014 in Outdoors, Region

Alaska’s Pebble Mine will threaten salmon, EPA says

 

JUNEAU, Alaska – A government report indicates a large-scale copper and gold mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region could have devastating effects on the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery and adversely affect Alaska Natives, whose culture is built around salmon.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday released its final assessment of the impact of mining in the Bristol Bay region. Its findings are similar to those of an earlier draft report, concluding that, depending on the size of the mine, up to 94 miles of streams would be destroyed in the mere build-out of the project, including losses of between 5 and 22 miles of streams known to provide salmon spawning and rearing habitat. Up to 5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds and lakes also would be lost due to the mine footprint.

The report concludes that “large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses significant near- and long-term risk to salmon, wildlife and Native Alaska cultures,” EPA regional administrator Dennis McLerran said in a conference call with reporters.

The battle over the proposed Pebble Mine has been waged for years and extended beyond Alaska’s borders, with environmental activists like actor Robert Redford opposing development. Multinational jewelers have said they won’t use minerals mined from the Alaska prospect, and pension fund managers from California and New York City last year asked London-based Rio Tinto, a shareholder of mine owner Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., to divest, a request Rio Tinto said it planned to consider.

The EPA has said its goal was to get the science right. McLerran said the report doesn’t recommend any policy or regulatory decisions and will serve as the scientific foundation for the agency’s response to the tribes and others who petitioned the EPA in 2010 to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay. He said no timeline for a response had been set.

The report also found that polluted water from the mine site could get into streams through runoff or uncollected leachate, even with the use of modern mining practices. It noted culvert blockages or other failures could impede fish passage and failure of a tailings dam, where mining waste is stored, could be catastrophic though the probability of such a failure was considered quite low.

Supporters of the EPA process hoped it would lead the agency to block or limit the project, action they urged again Wednesday; opponents saw it as an example of government overreach and feared it would lead to a pre-emptive veto.

Jason Metrokin, president and CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corp., said the corporation supports “responsible development where it can be done without causing unacceptable risks to the people, cultures and fishing economy of our region. The proposed Pebble mine is not such a project.”

John Shively, the chief executive of the Pebble Limited Partnership, which was created to design, permit and run the mine, called the report rushed and flawed, saying EPA did not take the time or commit the financial resources to fully assess such a large area. In a statement, he said the report is “a poorly conceived and poorly executed study, and it cannot serve as the scientific basis for any decisions concerning Pebble.”

Some see the mine as a way to provide jobs, but others fear it will disrupt or devastate a way of life. A citizens’ initiative scheduled to appear on the August primary ballot would require legislative approval for any large-scale mine in the region.

The Bristol Bay watershed produces about 46 percent of the world’s wild sockeye salmon, and salmon are key to the way of life for two groups of Alaska Natives in the region, Yup’ik Eskimos and the Dena’ina. The report said the response of Native cultures to any mining impacts was unclear, though it could involve more than the need to compensate for lost food and include some degree of cultural disruption.

Get stories like this in a free daily email


Please keep it civil. Don't post comments that are obscene, defamatory, threatening, off-topic, an infringement of copyright or an invasion of privacy. Read our forum standards and community guidelines.

You must be logged in to post comments. Please log in here or click the comment box below for options.

comments powered by Disqus