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. The forecast for the 2022 season is 75.27 million fish.
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.”
Our Alaskan representatives, do they or don’t they support the Pebble Mine?
Murkowski’s website explains the Alaska delegation’s stance in the following convoluted language. You be the judge…
“A year ago, the Army Corps of Engineers denied a section 404 permit for the proposed Pebble mine project. This denial came after years of study, including the preparation of a detailed and thorough Environmental Impact Statement. Many federal agencies, including the EPA, who was a cooperating agency, were involved in the regulatory review process and all reached the same conclusion – that the proposed Pebble mine project was contrary to the public interest. As I said then, that decision was the right one, reached the right way. The EPA’s announcement that they intend to reinitiate the process for making a section 404(c) determination under the Clean Water Act is not the right path forward. I understand that the EPA is taking this action at this time in response to a Ninth Circuit ruling regarding the 2018 withdrawal of the proposed determination, but it demonstrates precisely the problem that exists when the EPA uses their preemptive veto by effectively denying the opportunity for the environmentally rigorous permitting process to work. Further, a 404(c) does not deny a future administration the ability to withdraw the veto. This action does not provide the broader protections that the region and Alaskans want or need.”
The late Congressman Don Young –
“I have been consistent in my position that we needed to allow the process and science play out. In November, we should have secured regulatory certainty. But now, the EPA is once again playing bureaucratic ping pong with Alaska. I remain opposed to the 404(c) process, which only seeks to strengthen the EPA’s ability to issue a preemptive veto. I continue to believe the question of Pebble is one for us to resolve ourselves here at home, and I will keep working to empower Alaskans to make decisions they feel are best for their communities.”
Senator Sullivan –
“For reasons I have previously stated last year, I opposed the Pebble mine after the Trump administration’s thorough, fair, and objective process which denied Pebble’s permit application. I have also consistently opposed the EPA’s legally dubious claim of preemptive veto authority over resource development projects on state lands in Alaska. For that reason, the EPA actions are deeply concerning given that they are moving to restart a process that seeks to give authority to EPA and the White House to preemptively shut down any other major project in our state without a fair hearing or going through the permitting process. The onslaught of federal overreach from the Biden administration attacking responsible development in Alaska should cause us not to trust the Biden administration when it says they will use the preemptive veto ‘sparingly.’ I have strongly opposed such a precedent because the EPA does not have the legal authority to preemptively veto economic development projects in Alaska, and such a precedent in the wrong hands could decimate our state’s economy. This is not the right way to provide certainty for Bristol Bay, stability for the state, and ensure we can responsibly develop our world-class resources in other parts of Alaska, for the benefit of all Alaskans.”
For more information on Alaskan senators and Pebble mine, go to: https://www.alaskasnewssource.com/2020/09/23/undercover-hong-kong-investors-dupe-pebble-mine-execs-share-private-meetings-describing-political-influence-vision-for-180-year-mine/
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.