On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency released what is potentially its strongest scientific statement yet about the threat that large-scale copper and gold mining poses to one of Alaska’s most pristine and productive regions — an issue that the Washington Post referred to as “the biggest environmental decision facing Obama you’ve never heard of.”
The agency’s peer-reviewed “Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska” states unequivocally that:
…large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses risks to salmon and Alaska Native cultures. Bristol Bay supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, producing nearly 50 percent of the world’s wild sockeye salmon with runs averaging 37.5 million fish each year.
While the EPA’s scientific study does not focus on any particular mining proposal, it takes into account realistic scenarios including the Pebble Project, a proposed copper and gold mine that would be one of the largest open pit mines in the world and potentially the biggest in North America.
In addition to being three miles long and thousands of feet deep, the Pebble mine would require significant new infrastructure such as huge dams to hold back as much as a billion tons of toxic mine waste, a 378-megawatt power plant, a deepwater port, and nearly one hundred miles of new roads and pipelines for diesel fuel and ore slurry.
But the real rub is that the mine would be located in the headwaters of two major rivers that are critically important for wild salmon habitat. And according to the University of Alaska, the sockeye salmon industry in the Bristol Bay region supports nearly 10,000 full time jobs and $1.5 billion in economic output. The fishery would be put at risk not only from mine accidents like dam breaches and pipeline spills, but from normal activities associated with mine construction and operations. In the latest assessment, EPA listed likely impacts as:
• Loss of up to 94 miles of streams• Destruction of up to 5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds, and lakes• Extensive quantities of mine waste that would have to be collected, stored, and managed even after mining concludes• Failure of a tailings storage dam that could result in catastrophic environmental effects
While EPA’s three year study has been publicly vetted and rigorously peer-reviewed, and a group of 300 scientists praised the agency for a previous draft of the document, this has not stopped right-wing conservative groups from attacking the scientific process itself. For example, Resourceful Earth, a project of the Koch-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute, in July urged its supporters to send form letters against the study stating it “sets a dangerous precedent.”
While the Army Corps of Engineers is the agency that would issue “dredge and fill” permits for waste from the Pebble Project (and other mines that may come along in the future), the EPA has authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to “prohibit, restrict, or deny” the dumping of mining waste if it has impacts on fisheries, wildlife, or outdoor recreation. An important court decision last spring clarified that the agency has the authority to use this authority “whenever” it determines adverse impacts will occur. Thus, groups like the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association have called on the EPA to use this authority and take action to protect the area immediately.