To protect Bristol Bay and Alaska fisheries.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a July 18 press release said that it is issuing a proposal to protect one of the worldâ€™s most valuable salmon fisheries-Bristol Bay, Alaska-from the risks posed by the large-scale mining at the Pebble Mine site in the southwestern part of the state.
Development of this mine, which is backed by Northern Dynasty Minerals and the Pebble Limited Partnership, would make it one of the largest open pit copper mines in the world and, according to the EPA press release, would threaten one of the world’s most productive salmon fisheries. The EPA’s Region 10 is seeking public comments on the proposal.
The release said: “The Bristol Bay watershed is an area of exceptional ecological value with salmon productivity unrivaled anywhere in North America. The region’s streams, wetlands, lakes and ponds provide intact habitat that supports all five species of Pacific salmon found in North America-coho, Chinook, sockeye, chum, and pink. These salmon populations are critical to the health of the entire ecosystem, which is home to more than 20 other fish species, 190 bird species, and more than 40 terrestrial mammal species, including bears, moose, and caribou.”
How a mine could affect the Bristol Bay watershed
Based on information provided by Northern Dynasty Minerals to investors and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, mining the Pebble deposit is likely to result in:
- A mine pit nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon. Based on mine proponents’ prospectus, EPA estimates the mine would require excavation of the largest open pit ever constructed in North America and would cover nearly 7 square miles at a maximum depth of more than 3/4 of a mile. The maximum depth of the Grand Canyon is about one mile.
- Mine waste that would fill a major football stadium up to 3,900 times. This includes mine tailings and waste rock.
- Mine tailings impoundments that would cover approximately 19 square miles and waste rock piles that would cover nearly 9 square miles in an area with productive streams, wetlands, lakes, and ponds.
- A mining operation that would cover an area larger than Manhattan. This includes all three mine components that the EPA considered (mine pit, tailings impoundments, and waste rock piles).
A mine would also require additional infrastructure including major transportation corridors, pipelines, and wastewater treatment plants.
EPA Region 10 is seeking public comment on its proposal from July 21-Sept. 19, 2014, and will hold public meetings in Alaska August 12-15.
In February, the EPA announced it was initiating a process under the Clean Water Act to protect the Bristol Bay fisheries from mining of the Pebble deposit. The announcement followed a multiyear scientific study examining the impacts of large-scale copper mining in the Bristol Bay watershed.
EPA proposal to protect the Bristol Bay watershed
In its July 18 press release, the EPA said its proposal to protect the Bristol Bay watershed outlines restrictions that would protect waters that support salmon in and near the Pebble deposit. These restrictions apply to impacts associated with large-scale mining of the Pebble deposit. No other lands or development are subject to the restrictions.
The Clean Water Act generally requires a Section 404 permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) before any person places dredged or fill material into streams, wetlands, lakes, and ponds. The USACE authorizes thousands of permits every year, and the EPA works with the Corps and developers to resolve environmental concerns so projects can move forward. Under Section 404(c), the EPA is authorized to prohibit or restrict fill activities if a project would have unacceptable adverse effects on fishery areas.
The EPA has used its 404(c) authority sparingly, beginning the process in 30 instances and completing it only 13 times in the 42-year history of the Clean Water Act. EPA use of its authority has typically involved major projects with significant impacts on some of America’s most ecologically valuable waters, according to the press release.
In addition to holding public meetings, EPA Region 10 will meet with tribes for formal consultation. The Bristol Bay region is home to 31 Alaska Native Villages. Residents of the area depend on salmon both as a major food resource and for their economic livelihood. Nearly all residents participate in subsistence fishing.
The release noted that the Clean Water 404(c) process allows for substantial input from the public, the state, the mining companies involved with the Pebble deposit, and from Alaska Native tribes. EPA Region 10 will review public comments on its proposal and consider next steps in the process, which could include moving toward a Recommended Determination to the EPA assistant administrator for water.
For more information on Bristol Bay, public meetings and to submit comments visit the EPA website.