By Anita Desikan, Union of Concerned Scientists
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has once again washed its hands of its responsibility to protect the health and safety of our waterways. On Tuesday, the agency helped clear a path towards the development of Pebble Mine, a proposed mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska that if built will become the largest open-pit copper and gold mine in the United States. The EPA has abdicated their authority to veto the project if the mine proves dangerous to the rivers, streams, and other water bodies in the region.
The EPA forfeited their veto power by refusing to send an official letter that contained the following language, as required under a 1992 agreement, that Pebble Mine “will have substantial and unacceptable impacts to an Aquatic Resource of National Importance.”
Substantial and unacceptable impact
Let’s review the evidence-based reasons showing that, without a doubt, Pebble Mine would have a substantial and unacceptable impact on the aquatic systems of Bristol Bay.
Hardrock mining, like mining for copper and gold, is an industry that is prone to polluting waterways with toxic substances such as arsenic and lead. It is estimated that 40 percent of the watersheds in the western United States are contaminated by pollution from hard rock mines. The proposed Pebble Mine is expected to process 180,000 tons of ore a day and be operational for 20 years. The mine would include laying a 187-mile-long natural pipeline, constructing an 84-mile-long private transportation route that crosses over 200 streams (including Lake Iliamna, Alaska’s biggest lake), and would encompass the building of dams that would block critical salmon habitat. The mine would be situated in a seismically active region at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, it would reach a depth of 0.77 mile (in comparison, the Grand Canyon’s maximum depth is 1 mile), and is estimated generate up to 10 billion tons of toxic mine waste.
In 2014, a three-year scientific assessment was conducted by scientists at the EPA’s Pacific Northwest region to study the potential environmental impact of Pebble Mine. The researchers concluded that the mine would result in the loss of 1,200 to 4,900 acres of wetlands, lakes, and ponds. In the lowest impact scenario, 5 miles of salmon-filled streams and 19 miles of tributaries would be lost; in the highest impact scenario, 22 miles of salmon-filled streams and 72 miles of tributaries would be destroyed by mining activities.
Salmon populations are sensitive to toxic runoff from mines and exposure can result in death, reduced growth and reproduction, and an inability to relocate their natal streams (salmon need to return to the spot where they themselves hatched in order to deposit their eggs). And since salmon are one of the keystone species of the region – they provide food for 137 species and 25 percent of the nitrogen needs of riverside vegetation come from salmon carcasses – industrial mining activities have the ability to severely threaten not only the current population of salmon, but the entire ecosystem of Bristol Bay.
The EPA has bowed to industry pressure and the people hate it
The EPA has flipped multiple times on the issue over the years. This is due in part to an intense and multipronged strategy by the Pebble Limited Partnership, a subsidiary of the company, Northern Dynasty Minerals, that is attempting to build the mine. The Pebble Limited Partnership has spent $11 million on lobbying since 2011 ($4 million of that since the inauguration of President Trump), painted EPA’s efforts to scientifically assess the environmental impact as “biased,” and attempted to demonize the agency for considering protective actions under the Clean Water Act. Most recently, they have turned to a former friend in Congress, Lamar Smith, to advance their agenda, and finish what he started as Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.
Unsurprisingly, EPA’s actions go against the will of the American people, especially the Alaskan people. Since 2012, polling has shown that Alaskans have consistently been opposed to Pebble mine. Also since 2012, over 2.5 million comments have been submitted to EPA asking for protection of Bristol Bay from the potential risks posed by Pebble Mine. The US Army Corps held hearings in April 2019 in Bristol Bay communities and 80% of public testimony was in opposition of the mine.
The worst impacts will be on Native communities
Native Alaskans have fished the salmon in Bristol Bay for at least 4,000 years and even today the salmon represent a major source of subsistence for Native groups. While a few tribal groups have granted permission for Pebble Mine to be built, the vast majority of tribal groups, particularly those directly impacted by the mine, are vehemently opposed. These Native groups have been fighting Pebble Mine for years using the 2014 EPA report and other scientific data to make their case. But it comes down to this – Pebble Mine is likely to rob Native Alaskans not only of their way of life, but it could endanger their entire food supply.
When we surveyed federal scientists last year, some of the scientists wrote us comments related to this topic.
- “I have seen the concern of the people of Bristol Bay as the Agency changes positions on the Pebble Mine,” said one EPA scientist.
- “Agency decisions have resulted in collapse of salmonid populations which [significantly] affects the diet and income of low income, Native American populations,” said a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist.
- “I am concerned that opening up the Arctic for oil and gas exploration will have disproportionately negative impacts on Native Alaskan communities and their hunting and subsistence activities,” said a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) scientist.
If you love to eat salmon, this could affect you
Bristol Bay is the home of the world’s largest Chinook salmon run and it accounts for half of the wild sockeye salmon that is sold worldwide. This results in $1.5 billion in economic activity and is responsible for 14,000 Alaskan fishing jobs. According to the EPA’s 2014 scientific assessment, “Bristol Bay is remarkable as one of the last places on Earth with such bountiful and sustainable harvests of wild salmon. One of the main factors leading to the success of this fishery is the fact that its aquatic habitats are untouched and pristine, unlike the waters that support many other fisheries.”
The EPA’s decision to run away from its responsibilities goes against the scientific evidence and the will of the people. Unlike other decisions made by this EPA, there is no way to reset the damage that could be done to this region. Instead, Alaskan communities, including its Native population, will have to live with the consequences of this decision forever.