On May 18, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its long-awaited draft scientific study of the Bristol Bay watershed and its natural resources.
Although the language is dry and non-judgmental, the assessment makes clear that the risks of devastating impacts from even the most carefully operated mine are high.
The impacts of accidental spills and leaks are far greater, and the record of hard-rock mining the North America is one of commonplace spills, leaks, and water pollution.
This is a landmark moment in the battle to protect wild sockeye salmon. The huge Pebble Mine complex would sit amidst the watershed that gives rise to the many salmon rivers flowing into Alaska's Bristol Bay.
Give the EPA your comments
Use the information provided on the agency's own Bristol Bay website to send comments by July 23, 2012. (Scroll down to the “How to provide comments ...” section.)
We can recommend this wording, but please customize it to avoid the appearance of a form letter:
Dear Administrator Jackson,
I'm writing in reference to Docket # EPA-HQ-ORD-2012-0276.
Please prohibit the disposal of mine waste in Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed. 
The proposed Pebble Mine presents a long-term risk to the sustainability of this important fishery, and all the people and businesses that rely on it.
My family relies on wild salmon as a uniquely nutritious source of protein, rich in essential omega-3 fats and vitamin D.
Farmed salmon is not nutritionally identical (much lower in vitamin D, much higher in saturated fats and pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats) and poses its own environmental risks.
I urge the EPA to take immediate action to use existing provisions of the Clean Water Act to protect this large and irreplaceable wild salmon fishery.
Although the development could earn $350 billion for international shareholders, those profits could come at the cost of devastating one of the world's last great natural resources.
You can see all of our prior reports on the proposed Pebble Mine in the Mining & Seafood Sustainability section of our news archive.
Bristol Bay hosts millions of sockeye from the world's largest wild salmon “runs” … as populations associated with specific birth rivers are called.
Even the mining companies involved admit that this irreplaceable resource could be destroyed by very small traces of copper and other metals from the mines, should they get into the region's salmon rivers.
Among other problems, tiny changes in the concentrations of metals in a stream are proven to destroy a wild salmon's ability to find its way back upriver to spawn.
And because the millions of salmon that die after spawning are proven to nurture animals and deliver nitrogen for trees and other plants, the entire coastal ecology would suffer greatly.
Now, after 15 months of study, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released its draft scientific study of potential Pebble Mine impact on Bristol Bay watershed.
The EPA report characterizes the natural resources in the region and documents the potential impacts on those resources of large-scale mining, like the proposed Pebble Mine.
Click here for more information on the EPA's Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment and click here for the executive summary.
We thought you should see the article penned by Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of marine mammal protection for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which does a great job of framing the issue, and the meaning of the EPA's move.
If it inspires you to act, send comments to the EPA by the July 23 deadline … for information on how to do that, see our “Give the EPA your comments” sidebar.
We agree with Mr. Reynolds essay, re-published below, concerning the EPA's scientific study and reactions to it.
Surprise, Surprise: Pebble Mine Partnership Immediately Attacks EPA's Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment 
By Joel Reynolds, NRDC
You may have heard that, after 15 months of study, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week released in draft for public comment its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, characterizing the natural resources in the region and documenting the potential impacts on those resources of large-scale mining, like the proposed Pebble Mine.
EPA's action is big news.
But you may not have heard the cries of anguish from the mining consortium behind the Pebble Mine, a reaction grounded more, one suspects, in the consortium's desire to enrich its shareholders by mining Alaska's minerals than in a fair review of the EPA Assessment. No surprise there.
Using words like “rushed”, “inadequate,” and “premature”, the Pebble Limited Partnership immediately attacked the Watershed Assessment as an “EPA overreach” with “negative economic implications” not just for the region but for all of Alaska.
Never mind that EPA's Assessment is a scientific document and carries no regulatory mandate.
In fact, the Pebble Partnership's apparent notion that science undertaken by someone other than the Pebble Partnership is considered an “overreach” and a threat to the economic viability of the project speaks volumes about the project itself -- and about the questionable quality, objectivity, and reliability of the Pebble Partnership's own “science”.
Never mind the economic implications if EPA were to ignore the project's risks to one of the world's most productive wild salmon fisheries and the communities that depend on it – in other words, if EPA were to ignore its legal duty under the federal Clean Water Act. (See NRDC's legal brief to EPA.)
The economic consequences of contaminating the Bristol Bay commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries would be staggering.
Never mind that the demand for EPA review came from the overwhelming majority of residents of the Bristol Bay region, including Native communities, the region's largest developer the Bristol Bay Native Corporation and its 9,000 shareholders, and the Bristol Bay Native Association representing the region's federally recognized tribes, supported by a wide and diverse range of interests, from commercial, recreational, and subsistence fishermen to hunters and conservationists and elected officials, including the current President of the Alaska Senate Gary Stevens and members of the U.S. Senate.
Public opinion polls show that over 80 percent of the mine region's residents support EPA's review and oppose the Pebble Mine.
[Editor's note: Reynolds refers a local referendum, which mine opponents won, handily. But in 2008, Alaskans voted to defeat a ballot measure that would have tightened protections for the streams that give birth to the huge sockeye salmon runs in Bristol Bay … see “Alaskans Pick Gold Mine over Salmon Protection”.]
And never mind the self-interest of the foreign mining companies in seeking to defer or avoid scrutiny of the Pebble Mine for as long as possible as they advance a scheme that would generate billions of tons of mining waste (laced with toxins), to be stored FOREVER in a massive tailings pond sitting at the head of the Bristol Bay watershed.
Of course, they say, they would never proceed if there is a significant risk to the salmon. But there is nothing they can do to eliminate the risk of large-scale mining at this location, no matter the cost of their environmental review or the number of mitigating conditions.
And, in any case, it is inevitably the people of the Bristol Bay region who will be left to co-exist with the risk -- and with the toxic waste.
According to EPA scientists, if something goes wrong, the salmon, other fish species, and their habitat will be devastated. Even if nothing goes wrong -- a virtual impossibility if past large-scale mining experience is any guide -- EPA concludes that the impact on the salmon and their habitat will be widespread and irreparable. And it is this assessment, based on the best scientific expertise EPA can muster, that the Pebble Partnership would prefer the public never hear.
The Pebble Mine is a project that must be stopped, not because of a categorical opposition to mining and not because of some presumed ill will by Pebble's proponents. Indeed, the Pebble Partnership and its CEO John Shively may be sincere in their commitment to build a state-of-the-art mine if they get the chance.
The Pebble Mine must be stopped because, as one Anglo-American executive conceded when I met with her in London, “mining is a dangerous business”, even under the best of circumstances – and it must not be allowed at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.
The problem, as former Alaska Senate President Rick Halford has said, is this mine in this place. We shouldn't gamble what we can't afford to lose, and we can't afford to lose the Bristol Bay fishery. Period.
EPA deserves credit, not criticism. Its carefully crafted, science-based Watershed Assessment confirms the significant risk and unavoidable impacts of the Pebble Mine – which is precisely why it's already been attacked by the Pebble Partnership.
  • Reynolds J. Surprise, Surprise: Pebble Mine Partnership Immediately Attacks EPA's Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. May 28, 2012. Accessed at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joel-reynolds/surprise-surprise-pebble-_b_1531556.html
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA releases for public comment draft scientific study of Bristol Bay Watershed. May 18, 2012. Accessed at http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/0/6979FE30FC6583F385257A020061B472
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Region 10: the Pacific Northwest/Bristol Bay. Accessed at http://www.epa.gov/region10/bristolbay/