An important chapter in one of “America’s largest natural-resources fights in decades” is coming to a close. The comment period on the Environmental Protection Agency’s draft “watershed assessment” of the potential impacts on mining in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska ends on Sunday.
At issue is the Pebble Project, a proposed copper and gold mine that would be the largest open-pit mine in North America and one of the biggest in the world. Mining companies are eager to extract the billions of dollars of precious metals that lie beneath the ground in this remote part of Alaska.
But there’s a catch: the mine would be located in the midst of a pristine ecosystem and the headwaters of America’s most valuable and important salmon fishery. A recent study from the University of Alaska estimated that the Bristol Bay region supports nearly 10,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in economic development.
These jobs could be put at risk given the dramatic increase in industrial activity the mines would bring to one of the most pristine ecosystems remaining on earth. Yesterday, the Center for American Progress released a paper detailing what’s at stake in the region. It also called on the EPA to finalize the draft watershed assessment, and in that document, clearly designate which areas must be set off-limits to mining activities in order to protect salmon and the ecosystem.
The prospect of mining in this ecologically sensitive and economically productive region has many commercial and recreational fishermen worried about impacts that could occur during both construction and operation. Bob Waldrop, Executive Director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, put it like this:
Never has a mine like Pebble been attempted in such salmon-rich and water-saturated habitat. Large-scale gold and copper mines in the U.S. are notorious for generating water pollution during operations and long after they are closed. The damage at other mines costs federal taxpayers millions every year, and expensive efforts to restore lost salmon runs have largely failed — even under relatively benign adversity.
What is particularly noteworthy about this project is that the Army Corps of Engineers and the EPA have the authority under the Clean Water Act to issue or deny permits allowing mining waste to be dumped in rivers and streams. This provides the president with significant executive authority, and many groups are calling on the EPA to deny or restrict permits now in order to provide both the mining and fishing industries with certainty. As the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin put it, this issue is “The biggest environmental decision facing Obama you’ve never heard of.”
In order to examine the potential impacts of mining on the Bristol Bay region’s environment and economy, the EPA recently issued a draft watershed assessment available for public comment. It is “rigorous and peer-reviewed,” as the Center for American Progress wrote yesterday, and a coalition of over 300 scientists has also praised the EPA for “its effort to establish a solid science-based summary” of the impacts.
However, ultra-conservative groups have started jumping into the action. As just one example, the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity has been asking its supporters to comment on the draft watershed assessment. And, three weeks ago, more than a dozen groups, including Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, sent a letter to the EPA criticizing the assessment.
The public comment period on the draft watershed assessment closes this weekend, and as of last week more than 400,000 comments had been submitted, 300,000 of which were from fishermen, Alaska Natives, and environmentalists opposed to the mine. Finalizing the assessment and ensuring that it designates critical areas as off-limits to industrial activity will serve the dual purpose of providing clarity to developers and ensuring that the short-term economic gain from minerals does not come at the expense of long-term sustainability of one of the world’s greatest remaining fisheries.