Last updated on September 7th, 2021
A few months back I wrote a post about the looming threat that Alaska’s Bristol Bay faced from an Environmental Protection Agency decision to phase out previous administration restrictions on mining operations in the bay’s watershed.
At the time, local fishermen, conservation groups, and the local community, in general, feared that Bristol Bay’s natural renewable resources, including the bay’s prized sockeye salmon population on which so many depend, were in danger of being irrevocably damaged the EPA’s decision to withdraw certain important protections for the Bristol Bay watershed.
Well, for the time being at least, everyone not on the side of mining interests can breathe a sigh of relief. You see, in a surprise move, the EPA has reversed its decision and will not attempt to remove the protections that were enacted in 2014 by the same agency to restrict mining in the region.
What it means, at least for now, is that Pebble Limited Partnership, the subsidiary of Canadian mining interest Northern Dynasty Minerals, will not be able to go forward with its proposed Pebble Mine open-pit copper and gold mining project near the Bristol Bay headwaters.
But to fully grasp the importance of this decision, we first have to understand the uniqueness and importance of Bristol Bay.
Unique Ecosystem, Economic Value and a Way of Life
As I stated months ago, Bristol Bay is a unique place for many reasons. This vast area of roughly 33 million acres in southwestern Alaska is home to hundreds of wildlife species as well as thousands of Native Alaskans, many of whose indigenous ancestors first came to the region some 4000 years ago for the sustenance that this abundant ecosystem offered.
The bay is also, and importantly, home to one of the world’s richest natural fisheries as well as the site of the world’s largest sockeye salmon runs. Bristol Bay’s annual sockeye harvest accounts for approximately half of all the world’s wild-caught sockeye salmon.
The economic importance of the bay’s salmon fisheries cannot be overstated. Locally and nationally they contribute some $ 1.5 billion in economic activity and support over 14,000 fishing industry jobs.
Bristol Bay is also an immensely popular destination for sport fishermen for obvious reasons. They not only come here from other parts of Alaska but also from the rest of the U.S., Canada and other faraway places to enjoy the incredible fishing.
Sportfishing for salmon and other species such as rainbow trout brings in more than $ 60 million annually into the bay, with non-resident visiting anglers accounting for $50 million of that figure.
Vibrant salmon populations also help to sustain Native Alaskan communities who for millennia have depended on subsistence fishing. I might also add that for many in these communities, Bristol Bay’s rich natural resources represent not only sustenance but also a way of life deeply rooted in culture and tradition.
Second Reversal in Less Than a Year
This is the second time the EPA has reversed its stance on Bristol Bay. In May of 2017, it agreed to allow the Pebble Limited Partnership’s mining permit application to go forward in exchange for the company dropping its lawsuit against the EPA in a settlement.
So what happened to change the EPA’s mind – again?
To keep with key terms of the settlement, the EPA agreed to start the process of withdrawing its 2014 determination which restricted large-scale mining in the watershed. So EPA opened the process to public comments and public hearings (2 hearings in Alaska) for a period of 90 days, starting July 19 and closing on October 17.
What happened during this period was extraordinary. Well, maybe it was to be expected given the initial public outcry against the EPA’s proposal. I’m sure the EPA and its head Scott Pruitt expected some pushback on the unpopular proposal, but I don’t think they were prepared for the kind of resistance they would face.
The agency received more than a million public comments, with the overwhelming majority firmly against allowing any mining on Bristol Bay. The pressure to leave the restrictions in place was intense and it seemed to come from everywhere.
The agency’s effort to withdraw the restrictions on mining in Bristol Bay was opposed not only by local fishermen, businesses, Native Alaskan tribal organizations and coalitions such as the United Tribes of Bristol Bay and the Nunamta Aulukestai (meaning “Caretakers of Our Land”) but also by the people of Alaska, its Governor and other officials, and hordes of supporters in the lower 48 states and beyond.
I think the EPA realized that the people of Bristol Bay and Alaska were not going to sit quietly – they were ready to dig in for a long fight. There were also courageous people -tribal members and others from near and far- who were willing to lie on the ground, in front of bulldozers if need be, to prevent any mining in the watershed.
Officials at the EPA also knew they were going to be in for a protracted battle, both in the court of law and in the court of public opinion. It just wasn’t worth it this time around.
Too Early for Celebration?
Yes and no.
While this is certainly welcome news for the people of Bristol Bay, you kind of get the feeling that this is just a pause in the assault. The estimate is that this area holds approximately $120 billion in gold alone. We all know how that it’s nearly impossible to cure gold fever, so the people of Bristol Bay and their friends everywhere will have to be vigilant. Pebble Mine is not dead just yet.
Even in declaring that the agency would not seek to lift restrictions at present, Pruitt didn’t completely close the door on the mining interest (pay attention to the highlighted text):
“After hearing directly from stakeholders and the people of Alaska, EPA is suspending its process to withdraw the Proposed Determination, leaving it in place while the Agency receives more information on the potential mine’s impact on the region’s world-class fisheries and natural resources“
At some point when Northern Dynasty and Pebble Limited Partnership feel they can meet the EPA’s threshold for approval, they will reapply for a permit. In fact, as much was stated recently by Northern Dynasty’s President and CEO Ron Thiessen when he said:
“We have every confidence that Pebble’s ultimate project design will meet the rigorous environmental standards enforced in Alaska and the US, and that the EIS permitting process initiated by the Corps this month will demonstrate that compliance through an open, objective, transparent and science-driven review.”
If this current EPA is the gatekeeper at that time, I worry that only another monumental effort by the communities of Bristol Bay and others who see its value beyond gold and copper.
I have to believe, as do the people of Bristol Bay, that preserving the bay’s salmon populations and its other renewable resources for future generations far outweighs the short-term benefits of a mine that will most likely destroy a unique ecosystem and a way of life.
Your thoughts and opinions are welcome as always…
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Thanks for bringing this to people’s attention and giving an informative explanation of why this decision is so important to the area and its residents (both above and below water). Too often we hear about EPA decisions, but don’t understand the reasons why people are alarmed about threats to the environment. People might care more if they knew the facts behind these threats.
Thank you for your input, Earl. It’s unfortunate but there are too many areas that are facing threats from human activity. We’ve got to have some balance between industry and nature. It’s important that future generations everywhere also have the opportunity to participate in and enjoy outdoor sports like fishing and hunting.
How have I not heard about these threats facing the Bristol Bay? I’m a big environmental activist and seriously concerned about EPA cuts. Thank you for bringing this issue to light.
Hi Emma, glad you enjoyed the piece. Unfortunately, our wildlife habitats are under constant threat. The Bristol Bay battle has been going on for years. The bay is truly a one of a kind place – particularly for sockeye salmon – and it needs to be preserved for future generations. If you want more insight into the issue, you can also read our earlier post on Bristol Bay.