Updated September 2017
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 habitat is largely untouched by development. Bristol Bay also is home to several other important recreational species, like Arctic Char, Arctic grayling, rainbow trout, lake trout, Dolly Varden, northern pike and whitefish.
Collectively, recreational activities and commercial and subsistence fishing in the Bristol Bay region contribute more than $480 million in economic activity annually and support more than 14,000 jobs. However, the pristine Bristol Bay watershed is threatened by the proposed construction of a 20-square-mile mining complex, which would devastate 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 American Sportfishing Association (ASA) opposes Pebble Mine and officially supported various actions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the last 5 years to prevent the project from moving forward. However, the current political climate could significantly affect the prospects for Pebble Mine. The Trump Administration is putting a strong emphasis on over-turning a number of EPA regulations related to natural resource extraction.
From the beginning, ASA has voiced concern over proposed mining in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. ASA officially began its opposition to the Pebble Mine in 2011 by supporting an EPA watershed assessment and the EPA’s use of 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.
ASA believes 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 mining would increase the risk of an unintended breach of reservoirs and other environmental containment facilities containing heavy metals, acid waters and toxic chemicals.
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, 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 represented 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.
In April 2013, the EPA released a revised version of their watershed assessment on the impacts of Pebble Mine on Bristol Bay. In addition to citing the negative effects of mining activity on the salmon populations, the assessment also analyzed various types of mining activities and concluded that operations could negatively affect 20 miles of river and more than 1,000 acres of wetlands. Yet again, the EPA's assessment overwhelmingly supported the sportfishing community’s advocacy for denying Pebble Mine permits.
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.
In September 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 came after the EPA received more than 895,000 comments regarding the mine, 73 percent of which were against it. 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 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 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 2015. That deadline that was later voided because the EPA agreed in January 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. In September 2014, 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 had over the past several years with scientists and environmental groups that opposed the Pebble Mine.
Also in November 2014, an Alaska ballot measure informally called “Bristol Bay Forever” was approved, giving 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.
In February 2016, the Inspector General, an independent federal watchdog, released a report absolving the EPA of unfair conduct in the development of its 2013 watershed assessment. 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.
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 they stand on the proposed Pebble Mine. In the letter, the groups urged the candidates to oppose the project.
The current political climate could affect the prospects for the Pebble Mine project. The Trump Administration is putting a strong emphasis on over-turning a number of EPA regulations related to natural resource extraction although so far there has been no new action related to the Pebble Mine.
It remains to be seen how high a priority Pebble Mine will become for the Trump administration, considering there are several other longstanding, high profile Alaskan infrastructure and natural resource extraction projects percolating, such as the Izembek road, opening oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the new 5-year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program and undoing oil and gas drilling withdrawals, like the withdrawal of most of the Arctic Ocean.
Other factors will continue to influence the outcome, including the multi-year timeline of the permitting process itself, which could extend beyond this Administration and Congressional sessions. State-level opposition to the mine remains strong and the new Alaska House speaker, Bryce Edgmon, is from Dillingham, the hub of mine opposition in the state. In addition, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.’s (Pebble’s parent company) stock fell significantly on February 14th, 2017 when a well-known New York investment management firm declared the mine “worthless” in a 21-page report. This hurts Pebble’s search efforts for a funding partner for the upfront cash to cover the massive amount of infrastructure necessary to begin mine production.