The EPA should stop the Pebble Mine proposal to protect Bristol Bay


AP Photo/Becky Bohrer

On June 25, 2019, protestors gathered outside U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office in Juneau, Alaska, to protest the proposed Pebble Mine.

By Lucy Atkinson, Opinion Columnist

The Environmental Protection Agency needs to ban mining in the Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska, the proposed Pebble Mine, and preserve the beautiful, fragile and crucial environment that exists there.

Bristol Bay is a special region in Southwest Alaska that continues to uphold the state’s nickname “The Last Frontier” as a stretch of untouched and valuable land. 

However, for nearly two decades the beauty of the region and all the life that dwells there have been at risk. Indigenous Alaskans, local populations and environmental activists from all across the state of Alaska and beyond have been fighting to protect it. 

In 2001, Northern Dynasty Minerals proposed the Pebble Mine, which if permitted to move forward, would dig an open-pit mine in Bristol Bay to excavate ore, copper, gold and molybdenum among other minerals. 

Open-pit mining is a destructive method of mining that creates a lake of toxic waste as it progresses. Even once an open-pit mine is no longer in use, the waste remains and often serves as a major source of pollution to the surrounding environment.

To prevent such waste from escaping, the Pebble Partnership’s proposed solution is to construct a six to 700- foot tall dam that would hold back the mine’s fatal pool of waste. 

According to Save Bristol Bay, an Alaskan non-profit organization dedicated to preventing Pebble Mine, the waste would total “between 2.5 billion and 10 billion tons of mine waste that Pebble would produce over its lifetime – nearly enough to bury the city of Seattle, WA.”

Due to the impact of open-pit mines being permanent, the dam would need to successfully hold back the mine’s toxic waste for centuries. This seems unlikely given the earthquakes common in the region and the potential damage they could cause to the Pebble Partnership’s proposed dam. 

Why is it so crucial to keep Bristol Bay from harm?

As a vital habitat to hundreds of species, Bristol Bay is also the location of salmon runs for all five species found in Alaska – coho, chum, pink, chinook and sockeye, including the largest sockeye salmon run on the planet, according to the World Wildlife Foundation

Holly Jones, an applied ecologist specializing in conservation and restoration at NIU’s Department of Biological Sciences, has studied the debate over Pebble Mine as well as the impact of salmon runs to nutrient subsidies. 

“Salmon … are such important nutrient resources for the places in which they spawn,” Jones said. “You can trace salmon-derived nutrients, like hundreds and hundreds of meters past the stream in which they run because what happens is something goes and eats that salmon, and then something eats that thing…which is critical for these ecosystems.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 46% of the world’s harvested sockeye salmon come from Bristol Bay. Healthy and prosperous salmon populations are crucial to the state’s job industry.

While the Pebble Partnership continues to argue the operation of the mine will create jobs, about 2,000, Save Bristol Bay estimates Bristol Bay accounts for 15,000 jobs dependent on the health of salmon populations, acting as a salmon fishery worth over $1.5 billion annually. 

Furthermore, destruction to the Bristol Bay salmon runs would prove incredibly harmful to the subsistence-based ways of life of the Indigenous Alaskans of the region, such as the Yup’ik, Dena’ina and Alutiiq peoples.

Alaska Natives have led the charge through the years with petitions and protests in an effort to save the bay from Pebble Mine. In 2010, six Tribes of the region urged the EPA to enact its authority granted in section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act in protection of the bay, and succeeded. 

Section 404(c) grants the EPA the authority to prohibit the discharge of waste into specific waters, such as would occur with the Pebble Mine, and thus in 2011 the EPA began its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment in order to analyze the threat. 

By 2014, with the assessment complete and the dangers of the project apparent, the EPA released its Proposed Determination, which acted to protect the bay from the Pebble Mine.

In the years since, however, the battle with the Pebble Partnership has seen a long and tedious journey, and the 2014 Proposed Determination was withdrawn in a settlement agreement with the Pebble Partnership.

Responding to continued public concern, in November of last year, the EPA introduced their Revised Proposed Determination which would prohibit industrial mining in the Bristol Bay region and restrict it in surrounding areas, hopefully once and for all.

Over the summer, the EPA has been reviewing the RPD, and while public commenting is now closed, organizations such as Save Bristol Bay and the United Tribes of Bristol Bay still provide opportunities for activists to speak out against the Pebble Mine. 

For anyone concerned with preserving natural habitat, whether Illinois, Alaska or any other state is their home, it is beyond important to help by continuing to speak out. It is crucial to advocate for Bristol Bay before and after the EPA’s final decision on the RPD on Dec. 2. 

Use resources provided by the organizations battling Pebble Mine, stay updated and educated on the struggle, and vote, in every election, for candidates who will fight for the safety of natural lands. 

“The idea that we endanger a run of salmon and a bay that’s one of the most pristine that we have on the planet, and that have such strong cultural connections to Native Alaskans, and that could threaten water and air resources … (and) recreational opportunities in that area – again, just for the gain of a single company to mine something that is found elsewhere in areas where we can mine with less impact – it just doesn’t pass the laugh test for me,” Jones said.

While prioritizing large-company profits over the natural resources of the earth is an unfortunately common motif in America, we cannot allow Bristol Bay to add to such a saddening societal pattern.