Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine

  “Each generation has its own rendezvous with the land, for despite our fee titles and claims of ownership, we are all brief tenants on this planet. By choice, or by default, we will carve out a land legacy for our heirs.”- Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior, 1961-1969.

What is Bristol Bay?

Bristol Bay, in southwest Alaska, is a vast marine ecosystem of rivers, tundra and wetlands, and home to the largest wild red salmon run on earth. This immense watershed, approximately half the size of Washington state, provides habitats for all five species of Pacific salmon; pink, chum, silver, king and sockeye, plus 24 additional fish and 190 bird species, as well as 40 terrestrial and marine animals, including brown bear, moose, caribou, walrus, belugas, and seals. In addition, the area is home to over 7,000 people, most of whom are indigenous Yup’ik, Dena’ina and Alutiiq Natives who depend on the fish and other animals as part of their subsistence lifestyle and cultural heritage.



Quantifying the Benefits of the Bay –

 In 2019, 56.3 million salmon arrived to spawn in the Bristol Bay region, and that number has continued to climb. In 2020, the return was nearly 58 million. In 2021, 66 million fish returned; in 2022, 79 million fish. The estimated ADF&G forecast for 2023 is about 50 million fish, plus or minus 15 million.

 The Institute for Social and Economic Research at UAA estimated in 2010 that the Bristol Bay fishery contributed $1.5 billion to the US economy. A report released to the Bristol Bay Defense Fund by McKinley Research Group in March 2021 estimated the economic benefits of the Bristol Bay fishery at $2.2 billion.

 Sport and commercial fisheries support more than 15,000 jobs.

 The watershed produces over half the world’s supply of sockeye salmon.

 Bristol Bay is a Marine Stewardship Council certified sustainable fishery. The Council is an international non-profit organization whose mission is to end over-fishing, certify sustainable fisheries, support healthy oceans, livelihoods, and food security.

 What is the Pebble Mine?

 “The only people that will really benefit monetarily will likely never even set foot in the region and it’s the people of the region that will bear the burden and the brunt of the damage that’s done by the project.” -  Melanie Brown from Salmon State.

 The proposed open-pit Pebble mine sits on a massive gold and copper deposit, located in a seismically active region near Lake Iliamna, at the headwaters of two of Bristol Bay’s largest rivers, the Nushagak and Kvichak. If developed to the full extent of the original proposal, it would be North America’s largest open-pit mine. With a mine footprint of roughly 20 sq. miles (approximately the size of Manhattan), the pit would be deeper that the Empire State Building is tall. It would require the world’s largest earthen dam, some 700 feet tall and many miles in length, to hold the toxic tailing which, if spilled, would have devastating consequences for the people and creatures that depend on this watershed for life. This mine would necessitate the construction of a deep-water port and hundreds of miles of roads through sensitive salmon and wildlife habitat. 

A rigorously peer-reviewed three-year EPA study in 2014 estimated a loss of approximately 94 miles of streams and 5,350 acres of wetlands, lakes and ponds, and determined that large scale mining would ultimately pose ‘unacceptable adverse risks’ from billions of tons of toxic mining waste to the Bristol Bay watershed. 



In its permit application, the Pebble Partnership reduced its proposed mine size to a smaller footprint, shown above in yellow, limiting extraction to 10% of the mineral deposit. Independent mining experts reviewing this version have deemed it economically unfeasible. Opponents believe that if Pebble were granted one permit, it would apply to expand to not only exploit the whole deposit but create the infrastructure for mining developments across the region, effectively turning the entire Bristol Bay watershed into a mining district.

 The Politics –

 Pebble has been the political football between EPA agencies, fishermen, mining advocates, environmentalists and tribes beginning over a decade ago. Last Fall, October 2021, a US District court ruled in favor of the Biden EPA’s request to ‘vacate and remand’ a Trump era EPA 2019 decision to withdraw the Clean Water Act 404c process, begun in 2014 under an Obama EPA. This latest decision reinstates the CWA 404c and triggered a May 31, 2022 deadline for regulations. It would protect waters essential to subsistence, commercial, and recreational uses, reducing the size of the proposed mine and rendering it economically unviable.

 After his election, President Biden also said Bristol Bay “is no place for a mine. The Obama-Biden Administration reached that conclusion when we ran a rigorous, science-based process in 2014, and it is still true today.”

What do Alaskans Want?

  • A Hays Research group poll that surveyed residents in the Bristol Bay region in 2018 indicated that ‘an overwhelming majority (80%) think that the Pebble Mine would pose a serious threat to fishing in Bristol Bay.
  • A vast majority of these residents (77%) manifestly oppose the Pebble Mine.
  • And a significant majority (70%) believe that the Pebble Mine and Bristol Bay salmon fishery cannot safely co-exist—debunking one of Northern Dynasty’s favorite talking points.
  • 62% of Alaskans oppose the mine according to a poll by David Binder Research released in July 2020.
  • The late U.S. Senator Ted Stevens called it “The wrong mine in the wrong place.”

“We are the salmon people of Alaska. We don’t want the mine in Bristol Bay.” – Robin Samuelson, Board Member Bristol Bay Native Corporation.

Protection Update

In late January 2023, the EPA exercised its 'veto authority' under section 404 (c) of the Clean Water Act to prohibit mining at the Pebble site.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the determination is aimed specifically at the Pebble deposit though it could potentially prohibit future projects that threaten aquatic resources. He said, “We know that this particular project would have adverse impacts, that would significantly impact not only the industry, but also impact the ecosystem and have a significant impact from a cultural standpoint as well,” he said.  

CEO John Shively said that, "This preemptive action against Pebble is not supported legally, technically, or environmentally.”

Governor Mike Dunleavy said the veto, "sets a dangerous precedent." Legal action may follow.

Alannah Hurley of United Tribes of Bristol Bay said, “Our work will not be done until every inch of our traditional homelands are protected.” Indeed, vigilance and further protections will be necessary because, inevitably, there will be future permitting requests from the industry put before the State of Alaska which could ultimately reverse the Federal EPA and Army Corps decisions.