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Leading scientists back U.S. efforts to protect Bristol Bay salmon fishery

EPA's Bristol Bay watershed assessment study area
EPA's Bristol Bay watershed assessment study area

David_Chambers_Pebble_Mine_finalcut_20130506..mp38.6 MB

On April 26, 2013, more than 300 leading scientists sent a letter to the White House expressing “deep concerns” about the prospect of large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed of Southwest Alaska, home to the world’s largest wild salmon runs. The action comes as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) releases for public comment a revised draft assessment on watershed impacts of what could be North America’s largest mine.  

(Click on audio mp3 above to hear more about the proposed mine in an interview with Dr. David Chambers, a geophysicist with the Center for Science in Public Participation.)

The open-pit gold and copper operation, known as Pebble Mine, would likely cover an area larger than Manhattan, according to EPA. The proposal is backed by the world’s second-largest mining corporation, London-based Anglo American, and Canada’s Northern Dynasty Minerals. The project has drawn sharp criticism from the Bristol Bay Native Corp., nine regional tribes, the commercial fishing industry, sportsmen, and environmentalists who fear the massive mine could cause irreversible damage to the watershed. The state of Alaska and the mining industry have objected to EPA’s action to assesses the mine’s potential impact.

In 2009, Bristol Bay Native Corp. and nine tribes called on EPA to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to declare the watershed off-limits for mine waste disposal. EPA responded with a draft Bristol Bay watershed assessment in May 2012, concluding that “mining at this scale would cause the loss of spawning and rearing habitat for multiple species of anadromous and resident fish.” On April 26, 2013, EPA released a revised draft for a 30-day public comment period. The new version is designed to address peer-review comments on the agency’s May 2012 draft.

 “This is the wise course of action for EPA to take,” said Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, who holds the biodiversity chair at the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment and is professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University. “Any development to this highly sensitive area should be comprehensively evaluated.” In addition to Dr. Lovejoy, Dr. Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia, National Medal of Science recipient Dr. Peter Raven, former U.S. Forest Service Chief Dr. Michael Dombeck, and 301 other scientists signed the April 26 letter, stating their consensus view that EPA is taking appropriate steps to safeguard Bristol Bay. 

“Bristol Bay and its watershed are an unparalleled natural treasure,” said Jane Danowitz of The Pew Charitable Trusts, which worked with the scientists to organize the letter. “It is EPA’s obligation to ensure that the region’s bounty, including world-class salmon runs, is protected.” 

Industry and EPA data indicate that the proposed Pebble Mine would cover 32 square miles and likely include an open pit seven times deeper than the Washington Monument. It would include structures as high as the Hoover Dam to contain an estimated 7 billion to 10 billion tons of contaminated tailings permanently. It would require 86 miles of roads, slurry pipelines, and heavy-duty truck traffic, as well as power plants and a deepwater port in one of the world’s most ecologically sensitive areas. 

EPA’s latest Toxic Release Inventory shows that the metal mining industry was responsible for 41 percent of toxic releases for all U.S. industries reporting in 2010. The metal mining industry has ranked No. 1 in release of toxic material since it was required to report them in 1997.

(April 26, 2013 press release from the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining)