Anyone who has ever visited Bristol Bay and the wild lands of southwest Alaska that compose its watershed knows how unique this place is. The streams and rivers that feed the bay support one of the last great wild salmon runs in the world — more than half of all sockeye salmon harvested in the world come from these waters.
Bristol Bay’s fishery supports 14,000 jobs for fishermen and women. A recent economic analysis has found that the 2010 sockeye harvest had a wholesale value of nearly $400 million, and as those salmon and the dollars they bring make their way through the economy, they generated $1.5 billion, making it the most valuable fishery anywhere.
The salmon don’t just create thousands of jobs, and feed diners from coast to coast; they support subsistence cultures of Native Alaskans who have survived on their bounty for over 4,000 years. A healthy salmon population supports a complex food web consisting of more than 40 species of wildlife from beluga whales and bears to bald eagles and rainbow trout. And this life-giving ecosystem is what is at stake if an open pit mining operation is allowed to move forward and destabilize the region. Until last month, Canadian mining company Northern Dynasty and its partner, London-based Anglo American, planned to press on with their plans to develop just such a mine. But in the face of increasing opposition from commercial and recreational fisherman, Alaska Native communities, chefs, jewelers and investors as well as increasing scientific evidence of the dangers, Anglo American – the larger of the two companies – abandoned its stake in the partnership.
Anglo American realized what we here in Bristol Bay have known for a long time: industrial-size mines like Pebble cannot coexist with wild salmon in this region. Earlier this year the Environmental Protection Agency released a draft assessment of mining’s likely impact on the region, and the science was truly scary: even if only 60% of the nearly 11 billion ton deposit is exploited, over 90 miles of streams and 4,800 acres of wetlands that wild salmon depend on for spawning would be severely and permanently damaged. This damage would not result from a catastrophe such as the failure of dam holding back mining waste; it would result from the normal construction and operation of the mine.
Normal operation of this kind of mine would generate billions of tons of mine waste that would be held behind earthen dams in perpetuity, all the while producing and leaking acidic pollution into this fragile wetland ecosystem. The EPA report concludes it would be nearly impossible to prevent the contaminated waste from seeping into underground water systems and salmon streams. When the mining operations are complete, and the mining companies and their jobs have packed up and moved on, Bristol Bay will be left with a catastrophic threat behind those dams, and toxic material seeping out from under them.
Gina McCarthy, the new Administrator at the EPA came to Alaska to see this area for herself, and hear from Alaskans on this defining issue. “I need to understand impacts,” she said, “I need to understand the science.”
The science is clear. The impacts of mining in this region are clear. We urge Administrator McCarthy to act on the scientific assessment conducted by the EPA and permanently protect the communities, fish and wildlife that depend on the Bristol Bay watershed by prohibiting the disposal of mine waste therein Bristol Bay. We cannot rely on the economic decisions of mining companies to develop or not develop the Pebble deposit.
The EPA has only used its authority under the section 404c of the Clean Water Act thirteen times since its inception forty years ago. Let’s not mess with Bristol Bay. Make it number fourteen.
• Kimberly Williams is the executive director of Nunamta Aulukestai (Caretakers of Our Land), an association of village corporations and tribes in the Bristol Bay region. Jack A. Stanford is a professor of ecology at the Flathead Lake Biological Station of the University of Montana..