Bristol Bay One Step Closer to Protection

December 2, 2022

Whenever I give presentations outside of Alaska, I always ask the audience, “How many of you like salmon?” Most hands in the room go up. Then I ask, “How many of you have heard of Copper River Reds?” Many of the hands still remain up. But when I ask, “How many of you have heard of Bristol Bay salmon?” almost all hands go down. And then I tell them the odds are 2:1 that they have eaten some. Nearly half of the commercially-caught Sockeye salmon in the world comes from the Bristol Bay region.

The science explaining why Bristol Bay is the greatest salmon fishery remaining on Earth is very extensive and relatively straightforward. An incredible network of lakes, ponds, streams and groundwater produce a diverse, complex portfolio of spawning and rearing grounds that allow a heavily-fished (commercial, sport and subsistence) salmon fishery to return with abundance every year. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game notes the fishery’s success can be attributed to “the region’s tremendously productive natural habitat.” Hosting all five species of Pacific salmon, the Bristol Bay salmon fishery boasts an annual return of 30-60 million fish. In 2016, the commercial fishery recorded its 2 billionth salmon caught since records began in the 1880s. In 2022, the commercial sockeye harvest in Bristol Bay reached 60.1 million.

Among the 8,000 residents in 33 towns and villages, salmon and water are the mainstay of culture and sustenance. Water has a deep spiritual value to the Dena'ina Athabascans, who have 36 different terms for streams. Every winter, the Russian Orthodox Church engages in a water blessing ceremony in several villages to ensure strong salmon returns in the upcoming season. The first salmon that is caught in the season is shared with a prayer. Fish camp is the heart of family, of community, of growing up for the region’s Yup’ik, Aleut, Alutiiq and Dena’ina Athabascan peoples. One person I interviewed for my book said she was "teethed on salmon." It is where residents subsistence catch an average of 147,000 salmon a year. They consume 2.4 million pounds of salmon annually – some 52% of their diet. The region is heavily reliant upon wild, renewable foods in general, with each person consuming over 200 pounds of wild-harvested foods at a total replacement value for the region of up to $27 million. Some 92 percent of the subsistence-caught salmon in the Bristol Bay region comes from the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds.

But in 1988, at the headwaters of those two most-productive watersheds, a massive copper, gold and molybdenum deposit was discovered. When vigorous exploration began in 2002 after Canadian firm Northern Dynasty purchased the claims, people in the region started to take notice. In 2007, English firm Anglo-American joined Northern Dynasty and formed the Pebble Partnership. Anglo brought the principal funding for the environmental work necessary to take the next step toward development of the Pebble Mine. In the years after Anglo-American joined the team, exploration activity exploded to the tune of some $541 million.

If built, the Pebble Mine would be the largest open pit mine in North America, and one of the largest in the world, with a footprint the size of Manhattan. To extract valuable metals from some 10.78 tons of low-grade ore, the mine would produce an estimated 13.5 billion cubic yards of toxic waste. That is enough mine waste to fill a major football stadium 3,900 times. Contamination of the surrounding watershed is pretty much guaranteed with most hard rock mines, but how much is always the question. The most common byproduct is Acid Mine Drainage, essentially, sulfuric acid. A study in 2006 showed that 60% of mines in operation were violating water quality standards, and 90% of those mines predicted that acid mine drainage was unlikely. There are several active mining operations in Alaska with acid mine drainage issues, including the Kensington, Red Dog and Greens Creek mines. In 2014, the tailings pond dam for the Mount Polley Mine in Canada failed, releasing 10 billion liters (2.6 billion gallons) of water and 4.5 million cubic meters (1.2 billion gallons) of toxic slurry into nearby lakes, creeks, and rivers. The area still has not recovered.

That incident showed the worst of what can happen. And the Pebble Partnership used to point to the Fraser River in British Columbia as an example of how mines and salmon can coexist. A quarter of the Fraser River salmon run through one of the lakes contaminated by that disaster. Oops.

When residents of the region started to learn about the scope of the proposed Pebble Mine and how hard rock mines operate, they became concerned. People like Everett Thompson, a third-generation commercial fisherman of Naknek, or Lydia Olympic of Igiugig, a subsistence hunter and fisher who once served as her tribal council president, learned, became alarmed, and became activists. Coalitions grew, joining commercial fishermen, sport fishing lodges, guiding companies, and Alaska Native tribes, to fight against the development of the mine. They pushed through and got passed a state ballot initiative, the Bristol Bay Forever initiative, that would require the state legislature to approve any large mine that would damage salmon habitat. But the state legislature is controlled by Republicans who, time and time again, show their allegiance to resource extractive industries over sustainable industries. The legislature has in the past reversed ballot initiatives it disliked. In addition, mining has a special place in Alaska. It is exempt from the stricter environmental reviews that the oil and gas industry is subject to at the exploration stage. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources, which controls permitting on state lands where Pebble is located, has never in the history of statehood denied the application for development of a large hard rock mine.

Seeking aid from outside the state, a group of Alaska Native tribes, commercial fishermen and others petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 to exercise its authority under the Clean Water Act to stop the mine. Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act authorizes the EPA to prohibit, restrict, or deny the use of any defined area in waters of the United States as a disposal site whenever it determines, after notice and opportunity for public hearing, that the discharge of dredged or fill material into the area will have an unacceptable adverse effect on fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas). Despite what some politicians may say, it is not unprecedented for the EPA to use this authority, although it has used it sparingly – having invoked it only 13 times prior in the history of the Clean Water Act. And this has occurred all but once under Republican administrations (Bush 43, once; Bush 41, twice; Reagan, nine times).

The EPA made 25 visits to 12 villages, held nine hearings with 2,000 attendees, provided two 60-day comment periods, and received 1.123 million comments. Following this multi-year public process – the very sort of notice and hearing required by law – the EPA issued a 1,438 page peer-reviewed scientific document, called An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska. When publishing this document, the EPA called Bristol Bay “an area of unparalleled ecological value, boasting salmon diversity and productivity unrivaled anywhere in North America.” That final watershed assessment estimated development of the mine, based upon publicly available information provided by Northern Dynasty to the Canadian government, would result in the destruction of 70 miles of streams and 5 square miles of wetlands. It also indicated it was likely some sort of accident or failure would occur, causing “immediate, severe impacts on salmon, and detrimental, long-term impacts on salmon habitat and production.”

In 2014 the EPA issued a Proposed Determination. It focused on three specific rivers and streams that are upriver of the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds, noting that action was necessary to protect the fisheries from unacceptable adverse effects. That Proposed Determination recommended restrictions if it were determined that Pebble Mine would result in the loss of 5 miles of anadromous streams, 19 miles of non-anadromous streams, and the loss of 1,100 or more acres of wetlands. In other words, no restrictions would have been imposed if the mine damaged less fisheries habitat than that.

The Pebble Partnership, abandoned in 2013 by its principal investor, Anglo-American, and other companies with partial ownership interests like Rio Tinto, knew it could not economically develop a mine so small. So, it filed suit in federal court, stalling the final EPA action until a new administration was in the White House.

In a state normally proud of complaining about interference from Washington, D.C. and the federal government, the people of Bristol Bay – where 81% of the population opposes the Pebble Mine – asked the EPA to step in and protect its valuable salmon watershed from development by a corporation owned by foreign interests. Some 57% of all Alaskans, who generally favor resource development, are opposed to development of the Pebble Mine. Some 80 jewelry companies and chefs from Seattle to Las Vegas have spoken out against Pebble. But under the Trump Administration, it was not Bristol Bay residents or even Alaskans who changed the EPA’s mind. It was a Canadian mining firm named Northern Dynasty, now the sole owner of the Pebble Partnership. It was also a private meeting on Air Force One between President Trump and the rabidly pro-development (and anti-federal) Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy.

On July 11, 2017, under the direction of Scott Pruitt, the EPA, published notice of its intent to rescind its scientifically-based proposed protections for Bristol Bay, Alaska. This notice was initiated by an agreement the Pebble Partnership to settle that federal lawsuit.

The EPA has not engaged in any new scientific study or review, has not conducted any new hearings or fact-finding, has not re-interviewed any of the dozens of Alaska Native elders interviewed in the development of its watershed assessment. There is no new information that the EPA can rely on in reversing its prior decision. It is merely bowing to the interests of one company owned by a Canadian mining firm.

One of the things that is often raised when environmental groups try to stop development of a particular project is the claim of lost economic opportunity, lost revenue for the state. This is not the case with Bristol Bay. Since statehood, the fishery has been managed in a sustainable way that annually provides 14,000 jobs in the region (plus another 6,000 outside of Alaska) and provides $1.5 billion in economic activity. Overall, fishing provides more jobs and more state revenue in Alaska than mining. In this case, development of the mine would mean replacing a sustainable economic model with one that historically has been boom-and-bust. Alaskans remember well how the crash of copper prices in 1929 sent the Kennecott Mining Company packing from its copper mine in the Wrangell Mountains – so quickly that dishes with food were left on tables in the mess hall. Alaskans are not willing to trade a renewable resource (salmon) for short term gain (copper and gold), and are not willing to trust that the next time commodity prices fall, that mining interests won’t walk away – leaving Alaskans to clean up the mess.

In the foreword to my book, Where Water is Gold, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “In Bristol Bay, we must take the long view. We must expand our concept of wealth, counting the riches of food for the community to be just as important, if not more important, than profits to shareholders.”

Now, the EPA is finally back on track to complete its process under the Clean Water Act, Section 404(c). The Regional Administrator has issued a Recommended Determination to prohibit and restrict the use of certain waters in the Bristol Bay watershed as disposal sites for certain discharges of dredged or fill material associated with developing the Pebble Deposit. The next and final step will be for the EPA's Office of Water to either affirm or reject the recommendation.

Posted in Alaska, Conservation.