Alaska’s Bristol Bay

Alaska’s Bristol Bay

Alaska’s Bristol Bay and the Proposed Pebble Mine

Southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed is home to some of the premier sportfishing destinations on the globe. Bristol Bay supports the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery and one of the largest king salmon runs, primarily because the bay's freshwater salmon habitat is largely untouched by development. Bristol Bay is also home to several other important recreational species, like Arctic Char, Arctic grayling, rainbow trout, lake trout, Dolly Varden, northern pike and whitefish. Collectively, recreational, commercial and subsistence activities in the Bristol Bay region contribute over $480 million in economic activity annually and support over 14,000 jobs.

However, the Bristol Bay watershed is threatened by the proposed construction of a 20-square mile mining complex, which would adversely impact the Bristol Bay watershed and the region's extensive recreational fishing opportunities.

The proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay has been an ongoing, hotly debated topic for a decade. The most recent news is that the Inspector General, an independent federal watchdog, released a report in February 2016, absolving the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of unfair conduct in its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment of the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska. Completed in 2013, the study indicated that the large-scale mineral mine would do irreparable damage to salmon fisheries and the local economy. Consequently, the EPA announced that it would veto permits once the company interested in constructing the mine filed for them; however, that has yet to occur. There have been several lawsuits against the EPA, including the now-dismissed allegations that the agency colluded with anti-mine activist groups.

In March, ASA joined with more than 40 organizations and companies representing millions of sportsmen and women and outdoor enthusiasts to ask the 2016 Presidential candidates where he or she stands on the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska. In the letter, the groups urged the candidates to oppose the Pebble Mine project has gained national attention.

Our Position

The sportfishing industry depends upon clean and healthy waters and abundant fish. The various mining operations in the Bristol Bay watershed pose a real and considerable threat to the fishery resources, water quality and sportfishing opportunity of the region. In addition to the inherent risks of the mining operations themselves, the Bristol Bay region is a seismically active area and this increases the risk of an unintended breach of reservoirs and other environmental containment facilities containing heavy metals, acid waters and toxic chemicals.

From the beginning, the American Sportfishing Association has expressed concern about the proposed mining in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. In 2011, we supported an EPA Watershed Assessment and the EPA using its authority under the Clean Water Act to withdraw Bristol Bay’s watershed area from future mining operations including disposal sites for dredging and fill.

Issue Background

Bristol Bay is under threat from a proposed mining operation that would be one of the largest mines of its type in the world. Because of its size, geochemistry and location, the proposed Pebble Mine runs a high risk of polluting Bristol Bay. The Pebble Mine complex would span 20-square miles of state land in the bay's watershed and would require the world's largest earthen dam to be built in a seismically active region. The dam and its 10-square mile containment pond are intended to hold between 2.5 and 8 billion tons of mine waste that the mine would produce over its lifetime. Because of the sulfide, or acid, generating nature of the Pebble ore body, the waste would require environmental treatment in perpetuity. Any release of mine waste into the surface or groundwater has the potential to harm Bristol Bay's important salmon runs.

In May 2012, the EPA, in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, released a draft scientific assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed and the potential impacts of large-scale development projects, such as the proposed Pebble Mine, on the bay's water quality and salmon fishery. This comprehensive interagency report represents the first step taken in a long process to protect Bristol Bay’s fisheries and the other natural resources that are so important to sportsmen and women, Alaskan natives and other citizens and visitors of the area. This assessment overwhelmingly supports what the sportfishing community has been advocating for – denial of Pebble Mine permits under the Clean Water Act.

On April 26, 2013, the EPA released a revised version of their watershed assessment on the impacts of Pebble Mine on Bristol Bay, Alaska. In summary, the assessment says that mining activity at the proposed site would cause negative effects on the salmon populations. The assessment also analyzed various types of mining activities and concluded that operations could negatively affect twenty miles of river and over one thousand acres of wetlands. Yet again, the EPA's assessment overwhelmingly supports what the sportfishing community has been advocating for – denial of Pebble Mine permits under the Clean Water Act.

As a result of the 2013 draft watershed assessment, the EPA opened a public comment period.  ASA submitted a letter highlighting the importance of Bristol Bay to sportfishing and urging the EPA to safeguard the area from mining. Upon release of the final assessment in January 2014, members of the Alaska congressional delegation, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young stated their position to leave the fate of the Pebble mine to the federal permitting and environmental analysis process.

On September 16, 2013, the Anglo American PLC pulled out of its 50-50 partnership with Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., removing itself from Pebble Limited Partnership (LP) and the mine project in Bristol Bay. The dissolution of the partnership comes after the EPA received over 895,000 comments regarding the mine, 73 percent of which were against the mine. Ninety-eight percent of Bristol Bay residents and 84 percent of all Alaskans were also against the mine.

In 2014, the EPA released a Proposed Determination stating its intent to restrict dredge and fill material disposal that would be generated by the proposed Bristol Bay Pebble Mine and began another round of public input. ASA submitted a letter on behalf of the sportfishing industry supporting the EPA’s proposal and outlining its concerns if development of the copper mine moved forward. The Agency received more than 574,000 comments in total. Due to the magnitude of public response, EPA extended the deadline for its Final Determination to February 4, 2015 – a deadline that was voided because the EPA later agreed in January of 2015 to halt all activity related to the Pebble Mine, including attempts to prevent mine development by placing water restrictions in the Bristol Bay watershed.

In November 2014, Pebble LP filed its third lawsuit, following previous attempts in May and September of the same year. On September 24, an Alaskan federal judge dismissed a lawsuit challenging the EPA’s ability to restrict mining activities within Bristol Bay. Pebble appealed the court ruling and still questions the validity of the EPA assessment of the impact of a large-scale mining development.  Soon after, the company asked that the EPA turnover records of communication the Agency has had over the past several years with anti-Pebble Mine scientists and environmental groups.

In another case, Pebble LP was permitted to proceed by a federal judge on June 4, 2015. The aspect that advanced was related to the EPA’s federal advisory committee that Pebble LP argues was comprised of biased opinions and failed to conduct transparent, public meetings. Pebble alleged that the EPA was in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), which an Alaska federal court judge in the fall of 2015 dismissed, quashing Pebble’s document requests.

An Alaska ballot measure informally called “Bristol Bay Forever” was approved in November 2014, placing another hurdle in the way of anyone seeking to develop a large mine. The measure gave state legislators power to prohibit mining projects in Bristol Bay if activities are determined to be harmful to wild salmon within the fisheries reserve.

On June 4, 2015, one of four claims filed by Pebble Limited Partnership (LP), the company interested in developing the mine, was permitted to proceed by a federal judge. The aspect of the case that advanced was related to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) federal advisory committee that Pebble LP argues was comprised of biased opinions and failed to conduct transparent, public meetings. Thus far, three of Pebble LP’s other claims have been dismissed by the U.S. District Court. The group has not yet filed for Clean Water Act mining permits and the EPA remains barred from pursuing any work activity related to the Pebble Mine.

The most recent news is that the Inspector General, an independent federal watchdog, released a report in February 2016, absolving the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of unfair conduct in its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment of the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska. Completed in 2013, the study indicated that the large-scale mineral mine would do irreparable damage to salmon fisheries and the local economy. Consequently, the EPA announced that it would veto permits once the company interested in constructing the mine filed for them; however, that has yet to occur. There have been several lawsuits against the EPA, including the now-dismissed allegations that the agency colluded with anti-mine activist groups.

In March 2016, ASA joined with more than 40 organizations and companies representing millions of sportsmen and women and outdoor enthusiasts to ask the 2016 Presidential candidates where he or she stands on the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska. In the letter, the groups urged the candidates to oppose the Pebble Mine project has gained national attention.

For more information on ways to get involved, please visit www.savebristolbay.org.

Bristol Bay Sportfishing Facts

Recreation and tourism spending in Bristol Bay brings $90 million annually to the state in the form of taxes and licenses.

  • In 2011, anglers in Alaska spent nearly $1.073 billion on fishing trips, fishing equipment and the development and maintenance of land used primarily for the pursuit of sportfishing in Alaska.
  • In 2009, Bristol Bay sportfishing supported over 850 full and part-time jobs and accounted for over $27 million in total wages and benefits paid to employees and proprietors.
  • In total, an estimated 29,000 fishing trips are taken annually to Bristol Bay freshwater fisheries generating for $60 million annually for the local economy. Tourists from outside of Alaska comprised about one-third of those trips.