Much of my hair fell out this year, perhaps due to stress from, you know, everything, or just being a male human of a certain age, but in the midst of all else one thing that definitely did not help was the continued threat of large scale open pit mining in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, home to the world’s last great salmon run.
Read the Backstory: Bristol Bay at Risk
For about 20 years, the prospect of Pebble Mine has loomed over Bristol Bay and the communities who depend on its salmon for their livelihood. The most recent mine proposal, a scaled-back version of previous plans, would have been one of the largest surface mines in the world. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the mine would remove 1.4 billion tons of material, and irreparably alter more than five square miles of currently undeveloped tundra and wetlands. The open pit will gouge almost 2,000 feet into the earth and stretch over a mile and a half wide—a hole so deep the Washington Monument could be stacked on top of the Empire State Building and not reach the original land surface. A 500-foot tall earthen dam would be built to hold waste rock and other tailings. All of this was proposed for a site at the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers, two of the most productive salmon producing watersheds on the planet.
In late July, the Army Corps released its final environmental impact statement (EIS) on the mine. While the EIS was not the final word on the mine, by most accounts it seemed favorable. In August, however, as I was trying to prepare myself mentally for the disappointment and anger I would have felt had the mine been approved, the Army Corps issued a press release stating that Pebble Mine “as currently proposed, cannot be permitted under section 404 of the Clean Water Act.” The Corps required Pebble Limited Partnership to provide a new mitigation plan to offset the mine’s impacts on streams and wetlands before it could receive a federal permit. In a letter to Pebble Limited Partnership, the Corps stated “discharges at the mine site would cause unavoidable adverse impacts to aquatic resources and . . . those adverse impacts would result in significant degradation to those aquatic resources.”
In early November, Pebble Limited Partnership submitted a new mitigation plan. But, it failed to satisfy the Army Corps. On November 25, 2020, the Army Corps issued its record of decision on the proposed mine and denied a permit for it. The Army Corps wrote that the mitigation plan was noncompliant with Clean Water Act guidelines, was insufficient in scope to overcome the damage the mine would do to the landscape, and that the mine was “contrary to the public interest.”
I was elated to read the Corps had reached this conclusion. In my public comments on the Army Corps draft Pebble Mine EIS, I had in fact called for the Army Corps to deny a permit for the mine partly because it was contrary to public interest.
The cheapest, most feasible, and most environmentally ethical decision is to conclude this mine poses unacceptable risks to Bristol Bay—specifically the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds—reject the mine alternatives, and choose the no action alternative for the final EIS. This is well within the Corps’ legal authority: “No Action Alternative could be selected if USACE determines during its Public Interest Review (33 CFR Part 320.4[A]) that it is in the best interest of the public, based on an evaluation of the probable impacts of the proposed activity and its intended use on the public interest.” (Ch. 2-8)
There is no doubt the no action alternative is in the best interest to the public. We have so little to lose by leaving the ore at Pebble Mine in the ground and so much to gain by protecting it for current and future generations. The decision is clear. The only acceptable alternative proposed in the DEIS is the no-action alternative. Do not permit this mine to be developed.
While campaigning for the US presidency, Joe Biden stated that he opposed the mine. His election along with the Army Corps’ decision during the final weeks of Donald Trump’s anti-conservation administration serves as a death knell for this iteration of Pebble Mine. However, the ore remains on State of Alaska lands open to mining. Mine executives and investors will continue to ogle it. Even as the current Pebble Mine proposal is killed, a new version may rear its ugly head in the future. We came closer than ever before to sacrificing the last great salmon run along with the regional economy and ecology dependent on it.
Now, we must work ensure that this unique landscape is permanently protected from development that is incompatible with salmon. Because mine permit applications can be resubmitted, Bristol Bay’s salmon remain under threat.
The United Tribes of Bristol Bay has called for Congress to establish a Bristol Bay national fisheries area. It would provide federal “protection for the watersheds of Bristol Bay, Alaska. It must permanently ban any toxic mine waste from the proposed Pebble Mine and large scale projects like it that would harm Bristol Bay rivers, lakes and wetlands.” The effort has already gained support from the Seattle Times, Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, Alaska Audubon, and the Natural Resources Defense Council among others.
I wholeheartedly support this proposal. Congress and the State of Alaska should work together to permanently protect all of Bristol Bay’s headwaters from development that is incompatible with the protection of salmon. We’ve sacrificed freshwater salmon habitat for mining, irrigation, hydropower, roads, industry, and plain convenience nearly everywhere outside of Alaska and Bristol Bay. Meanwhile, climate change will make it harder for salmon to survive in places where runs already struggle. We and the ecosystems who depend on healthy salmon runs pay the price when they don’t return, and it’s a lot more expensive and difficult to restore salmon runs than to protect healthy runs in the first place.
Salmon are valuable for more than food and aesthetics. As conveyors of energy and nutrients from the sea, salmon enrich freshwater and terrestrial habitats. Ecosystems are more productive and wildlife more abundant in areas with healthy runs of wild salmon. Bristol Bay salmon support tens of thousands of jobs and the well being of the people who call the area home.
In the meantime, what can you do to help? If you have the time, write to your congressional representatives and urge them to permanently protect Bristol Bay. If you eat salmon, be sure to purchase salmon that is sustainably sourced (if you buy wild Alaska sockeye salmon, it’s very likely to be from Bristol Bay). And share the wonders of the Bristol Bay region with your friends and family. While explore.org’s bearcams in Katmai National Park are offline for the winter, even the cam highlights show an ecosystem working at its full potential. It’s hard to not feel awe and wonder at the sight of bears competing for the opportunity to catch salmon.
On a societal level, 2020 hasn’t produced many celebratory occasions. We remain in the midst of a pandemic, one that is raging more than ever. Climate change hasn’t slowed one bit, and this year is on track to be one the warmest on record. The extinction crisis is worsening. Plus our partisan and political divisions are deeper than at any other point in my lifetime, hampering our collective ability to resolve these issues.
Stopping Pebble Mine now is significant and a cause for celebration. It underscores that we value clean water and sustainable fisheries.
But the fight isn’t over. Given the poor state of North American salmon outside of Alaska, with collapsed runs existing at small fraction of historic highs, Bristol Bay should be our line in the sand. It is the last great salmon run left on Earth and it cannot be compromised.