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Alaska Mine's Eco Risks Hit in EPA Report
The agency's final assessment gives ample reason to block a salmon-risking mine
1/16/2014By Craig Weatherby
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Image Bristol Bay is a critical ecosystem, an economic lifeline for local Alaskans, and the biggest single source of wild salmon … one of healthiest foods known.

The Bay hosts nearly 50 percent of the world’s commercially harvested sockeye, generates $480 million in yearly revenue, and supports 14,000 jobs a year.

This unique region supports five species of wild salmon, along with more than 20 other fish species, 190 bird species, and more than 40 mammals, including bears, moose, and caribou.

It’s also clear that the nutrients left in rivers and streams by dying salmon provide a critical biological lifeline for coastal trees, plants, and wildlife.

Conversely, salmon's ability find its way to spawning grounds is disrupted by even small changes in the metals (e.g., copper and zinc) content of rivers and streams, which can leach out of mine waste.
Make your views count
As a scientific paper, the EPA’s alarming risk assessment does not recommend policy or regulatory decisions.

Eyes now turn toward EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, and the White House to see if they follow the science and broad public opposition to the mine.

The fate of the nation’s greatest salmon fishery – and the workers and consumers that rely on it – rests with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and the White House.

We urge you to make your views known:
Vital Choice joins fishermen, Alaska Natives, supermarkets, restaurants, chefs, conservation groups, and sportsmen in opposing the mine and calling on the Obama administration to block it.

Proposed mine is subject of EPA study
A group of big firms wants to open a complex of massive, open-pit mines – named “Pebble Mine” – to extract an estimated 80 billion pounds of copper and 107 million ounces of gold.

Compared with fishing and recreation jobs, the mine operation would employ far fewer people, only for the limited lifespan of the mine … and most of the dollars would flow to international investors.

Based on the consortium's own estimates of the minimum and maximum size of the project, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), estimates that the proposed Pebble Mine would generate from 400 million to 15 billion metric tons of waste rock.

This waste rock (called tailings) would need to be contained in storage facilities covering from 2.6 to 18.7 square miles ... for hundreds of years or more.

Based on the history of similar mines, the EPA concludes that – even without highly conceivable accidents – substantial amounts of heavy metals (mostly copper) will leach out of the stored tailings.

The agency concludes that those leaks may disrupt salmon migration, kill some fish (if not salmon), likely kill small river-bottom creatures upon which salmon and other fish depend, and otherwise threatening this unique, irreplaceable habitat.

We’ve been following the fight to stop the Pebble Mine complex since 2005 … see the Mining & Seafood Sustainability section of our newsletter archive.

Yesterday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its final – highly critical – scientific assessment of the proposed mine’s environmental risks and impacts.

EPA report sees serious harm from an allegedly “safe, modern” mine
In 2010, commercial fishermen and Native Alaskan Tribes asked the EPA to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to restrict disposal of mine waste in the waters that feed Bristol Bay.

The EPA’s Final Assessment finds that – excluding damage from predictable leaks and accidents – the proposed mine would destroy up to 94 miles of salmon streams and more than 5,000 acres of wetlands, lakes, and ponds, and harm an estimated 33 miles of streams.

As the agency’s press release says, “Consistent with the recent record of similar mines operating in the United States, polluted water from the mine site could enter streams through uncollected leachate or runoff, in spite of modern mining practices.” (EPA 2014)

The fate of the world’s greatest salmon fishery rests with the EPA, which the Clean Water Act authorizes to protect rivers and wetlands critical for fish and wildlife habitat … if action is warranted by the results of public hearings and peer-reviewed scientific study.

Report based on solid science
The EPA considered all scientific data – and more than 1 million public communications – submitted during two comment periods.
 
(We urged our readers to weigh in … for example, see “Salmon-Risking Mine on the Line ... Speak Now!”.)
 
The agency received some 233,000 comments on the first draft, and about 890,000 on the second draft.
 
The EPA’s Bristol Bay mining impact assessment was independently peer reviewed by 12 scientists with expertise in mine engineering, salmon biology, aquatic ecology, aquatic toxicology, hydrology, wildlife ecology, and more.

The agency also reviewed data submitted by the mine partnership (Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.), including its assessments of the impacts of the Pebble Mine complex.
 

Sources
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska. Accessed at http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/names/r10_2014-1-15_final_bristol_bay_assessment
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA releases Bristol Bay Assessment describing potential impacts to salmon and water from copper, gold mining. January 15, 2014. Accessed at http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/names/r10_2014-1-15_final_bristol_bay_assessment
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