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Tina Casey headshot

Tension Mounts as U.S. EPA Comes Out Swinging in Support of Bristol Bay

By Tina Casey

How's this for timing: Just a few weeks in advance of a special Triple Pundit series on sustainable fisheries, last Friday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a strongly--and we mean strongly--worded announcement that it will use its authority under the Clean Water Act to to protect the sockeye salmon fishery in Bristol Bay, Alaska, which just happens to be the largest sockeye fishery in the entire world.

Triple Pundit took note of the EPA announcement earlier this week (here's that article), and it's worth revisiting the topic to make a point about the growing tension between renewable and non-renewable resources in an increasingly globalized economy.

A slam-dunk for protecting Bristol Bay

The EPA announcement came in response to the proposed Pebble Mine, a copper mining operation. Here is the money quote from the EPA regarding its unusually aggressive announcement:
This action...reflects the unique nature of the Bristol Bay watershed as one of the world’s last prolific wild salmon resources and the threat posed by the Pebble deposit, a mine unprecedented in scope and scale.

That statement is dramatic enough, but beyond this one instance the EPA action indicates a renewed attentiveness to the potentially devastating impact of non-renewable resource harvesting on renewable resources, so let's see how this plays out on a broader scale.

In Friday's announcement, EPA Regional Administrator for Region 10 had this to say:

Bristol Bay is an extraordinary natural resource, home to some of the most abundant salmon producing rivers in the world. The area provides millions of dollars in jobs and food resources for Alaska Native Villages and commercial fishermen. The science EPA reviewed paints a clear picture: Large-scale copper mining of the Pebble deposit would likely result in significant and irreversible harm to the salmon and the people and industries that rely on them.

The Bristol Bay salmon fishery

According to the EPA, Bristol Bay is where nearly half of the world’s wild sockeye salmon get their start, with an average of 37.5 million fish each year. That includes the five Pacific salmon species native to North America (sockeye, coho, Chinook, chum and pink) along with about 20 other fish species. If those numbers seem high, that's no accident. The EPA credits the "exceptional water quality in streams and wetlands" for a healthy habitat.

Putting aside the happy salmon for the moment, EPA also credits Bristol Bay with generating hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity, involving more than 14,000 full and part-time local jobs.

The EPA Pebble Mine assessment

The Pebble Mine, according to EPA, would be the biggest open-pit mine ever built in North America, and that's just for starters. Disposing of mine waste would require the construction of at least three dams at the headwaters of two rivers that account for approximately half the sockeye salmon population.

EPA's assessment of the environmental impacts was unusually strong, but it was meticulously vetted. The announcement came only after the release of a detailed study undertaken in 2010 on request of several Alaska Native tribes in the region.

The study, “Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska,” is well worth a read in full, but the gist of it is that although some risk mitigation is certainly possible, when you take into consideration everything that could go wrong it all adds up to one glorious disaster.

In light of the string of environmental disasters in the U.S. over the past few years, from the Tennessee coal ash spill in the Emory River to the BP Gulf oil spill and the Enbridge pipeline spill in the Kalamazoo River on up to the West Virginia coal-washing chemical spill and the North Carolina coal ash spill, that's a pretty high level of risk.

As for next steps, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cannot issue a permit for the mine unless and until the EPA is satisfied.

That prospect seems highly unlikely. In Friday's announcement, EPA cited the more than 850,000 comments it received from a wide variety of stakeholders in the region committed to preserving Bristol Bay.

In that regard it's notable that the jewelry company Brilliant Earth has been in the vanguard of promoting more sustainable mining practices. Brilliant Earth co-founder Beth Gerstein just guest-posted an article to that effect on Triple Pundit last week, underscoring her company's use of recycled materials as a more sustainable pathway to building a business on personal accessories.

Colonialism, much?

Take a quick look back at basic American history, and you'll see that the 13 original colonies were engineered to produce raw materials for companies in their home nation overseas.

Those days have long since gone, but history has a habit of repeating itself, and the U.S. again finds itself in the position of compromising the health and safety of its communities and its natural resources in order to satisfy the thirst for raw materials overseas.

That includes heavy lobbying to increase exports of natural gas, entailing more negative impacts from natural gas fracking. China has also become a player in U.S. fossil fuel development, and then of course there's Canada, adding to fossil fuel transportation risks with the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline.

Now we can add copper to the list: The lead developer of the Pebble Mine is the Canada-based company Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.

Image credit: Ingrid Talary

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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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