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EPA scrutinizes Pebble Mine impact on Bristol Bay salmon

The Pile River flows into Lake Iliamna,  in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska. The Pebble Mine would sit just above the lake.
The Pile River flows into Lake Iliamna, in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska. The Pebble Mine would sit just above the lake.

UPDATED 3:55 p.m. on Feb. 28 with link to Associated Press story and comment from Pebble Mine official that EPA action is a "major overreach."

FISHING -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today it will use its Clean Water Act authorities to review impacts of a controversial proposed mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska.  

The proposed mine is opposed by anglers and conservationists from Alaska south along the Pacific Coast for the extreme risk it would present to the nation's greatest salmon fisheries.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA, applauded the EPA action, noting that the Pebble Mine could have devastating effects on Washington state’s fishing industry, which employs thousands of workers in the Pacific Northwest and contributes more than $670 million to the regional economy each year. 

  • Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership, which is working to advance the mine project, called the EPA process a "major overreach" in today's story by the Associated Press

The EPA action announced today prohibits the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from issuing permits for a mine until review developing the environmental criteria for permitting is complete. The EPA has asked the Army Corps, the state of Alaska, and the mine project sponsor to provide evidence that the mine would not negatively impact water quality or aquatic resources, including the many fish species in the region.

Reaction includes:

Sen. Patty Murray said:

“I applaud the EPA for recognizing the real threat posed by this shortsighted mining proposal and taking action to protect Washington state’s fishing families,” said Sen.  Murray.  “The EPA’s Watershed Assessment has demonstrated that large scale mining such as the proposed Pebble Mine would devastate this critical industry that supports thousands of local families and contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the regional economy.”


--Sen. Maria Cantwell said:

“I applaud this action today to protect Northwest fishing jobs from being destroyed by the largest open pit mine in North America,” said Cantwell. “Washington and Alaska fishermen depend on Bristol Bay for their livelihoods. Ruining headwaters with mining pollution is too big a risk to existing jobs in Pacific Northwest.

“Today, the administration is saying that potential gold mining is not more important than a $1.5 billion sockeye fishing industry. Gold might be an valuable commodity but it’s not more important than Pacific Northwest salmon.

“Wild salmon populations already face a number of threats,” Cantwell added. “Adding mining pollution to the spawning ground for the world’s number one sockeye salmon fishery doesn't make economic sense. Mining pollution could threaten 14,000 fishing jobs and a critical food source that subsistence fishermen depend on. I will work hard to ensure that fishermen have a voice as the 404C process moves forward. We cannot afford to put thousands of fishing jobs at risk.”

In June 2013, Murray and four other West Coast senators wrote a letter to President Obama calling the Administration to factor in the impact a permit for a mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska, would have on the West Coast fishing industry.   

Earlier this year, the EPA released a watershed assessment that details the potential impacts of a large scale mine development near Bristol Bay. 

Read on for a sampling of reaction from sportsman and environmental groups:

Sportsmen's groups roundly praised today’s EPA announcement.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership  and other sportsmen’s groups long have urged the EPA to exercise its authority, granted by section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, to restrict the level of impact allowed on water quality and fish and wildlife populations from dredge and fill material or other harmful, large-scale mining activities in the Bristol Bay watershed. The EPA decision reflects the unique resources found in the watershed and follows overwhelming opposition to the Pebble Mine, with more than 850,000 public comments requesting protection of the southwestern Alaska region. 

“The global hunting and angling community has worked to protect Bristol Bay from the threat of the proposed Pebble Mine for years,” said Scott Hed, director of the Sportsman’s Alliance for Alaska. “Today’s news that EPA is initiating a process under the Clean Water Act that could lead to Bristol Bay’s protection is welcomed by more than 1,000 sporting organizations and businesses and millions of sportsmen and –women, ranging from catch-and-release anglers and big game hunters to makers of fly fishing gear and firearms. 

“The sporting community is united in this fight,” Hed continued, “and will continue to engage in this issue to ensure that one of the planet’s premier sport fishing and hunting destinations is permanently protected. Some places are just too valuable to be compromised; Bristol Bay is one of these places.”

The Dallas Safari Club, whose mission includes conservation, education and protection of hunters’ rights, also spoke favorably of the EPA decision. “The Dallas Safari Club is glad to see that southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, one of the great fisheries of the world, will be protected for the enjoyment of the sportsmen of the future,” said DSC Executive Director Ben Carter.

Tucker Ladd, chairman of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, weighed in as well. “AFFTA is thrilled that the EPA has taken this step towards preserving the incredible resource that Bristol Bay represents,” Ladd said. “Conservation of this fishery is crucial to our members – not only as anglers, but as businesses that will rely on the resource over the long term.”

Click here for a statement from Earthjustice.

Bristol Bay is a place of internationally recognized importance for fish, wildlife and sportsmen. The area’s lakes and streams host all five species of Pacific salmon, including the largest run of sockeye salmon in the world, as well as trophy rainbow trout. Moose, caribou, brown and black bear and waterfowl also populate the region.

  • Commercial fishing in the Bristol Bay region generates $450 million and recreational fishing generates $160 million to the Alaska economy every year. The area’s commercial fishery is the most valuable salmon fishery in the world, providing 30 percent of all Alaskan salmon harvest and 52 percent of all private sector jobs in the region.
  • The proposed Pebble Mine Complex would cover 54.5 square miles and could produce as much as 10 billion tons of mine waste that would have to be treated and stored in perpetuity. 
  • Learn more about the Clean Water Act Section 404(c).
  • Learn more about the EPA Bristol Bay Assessment.

Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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