EPA Must Take One More Step to Protect Bristol Bay
In 2011, American Rivers listed Bristol Bay as one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers®, due to the threat of a massive copper/gold mine that would devastate the landscape, fisheries, and local way of life.
We are pleased that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts of Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska. This is not an in-depth assessment of a specific mine, but rather an examination of potential impacts of reasonably foreseeable mining activities in the Bristol Bay region, given the nature of the watershed’s mineral deposits and the requirements for successful mine development.
The EPA evaluated three scenarios of mineral extraction – 0.25 billion tons (20 years), 2.0 billion tons (25 years), 6.5 billion tons (78 years). EPA chose not to assess an, “underground extension of the mine [which] could increase the size of the mine to 11 billion tons of ore.” These scenarios, based on Pebble Partnership filings, could yield up to 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold, and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum.
Some of the key findings of this report that directly relate to rivers and salmon are as follows:
- The Pebble Mine could cause the direct loss of up to 24, 55, and 94 miles of streams respectively, and would alter stream flow for up to an additional 33 miles of streams.
- Six additional mines (with footprints up to 14,000 acres) would cause the loss of 43 additional miles of streams.
- Mining would produce acidic and metals-laden waters. Based on the nature of these materials, it is extremely unlikely that the mine could operate without degrading water quality downstream, particularly given the perpetual management required.
- Leaching of copper during standard operation could directly impact salmon species in up to 35 miles of river and stream beyond the mine footprint.
- Treatment failure could cause direct impacts to salmon in up to 60 miles of streams.
- There are no examples of such successful, long-term collection and treatment systems for mines, because these time periods exceed the lifespan of most past large-scale mining activities, as well as most human institutions. Engineered waste storage systems of mines have only been in existence for about 50 years, and this Pebble Mine waste would likely need to be managed in perpetuity.
- The transport corridor would cross 64 streams and rivers, 55 of which support salmon.
- In event of a tailings dam failure, the North Fork Koktuli River could lose up to 18 miles of stream habitat and would not support salmon for at least 10 years, and spawning and rearing habitat would be impacted for a period of decades.
- A tailings dam failure could cause a loss of up to 29% of the Nushagak king salmon and 10-20% of the Mulchatna king salmon.
- Based on the general record of pipelines and further supported by the record of metal concentrate pipelines at existing mines, one near-stream failure and two near-wetland failures of each of these pipelines would be expected to occur over the life of the third Pebble Mine scenario (approximately 78 years).
Bristol Bay’s wild salmon fishery and other natural resources provide at least 14,000 full and part-time jobs and are valued at about $480 million annually. The average annual run of sockeye salmon is about 37.5 million fish — 46% of the global sockeye, half of which come directly from Bristol Bay drainages.