If ever there was a place you’d think would be off-limits for a mine, it is Bristol Bay. Home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon run, this land of wild rivers and abundant salmon runs supports a thriving commercial fishery that supplies more than 140,000 jobs a year for people in Alaska and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Nearly 60 million sockeye are caught in this fishery each year. Yup’ik, Aluti’iq and Dena’ina peoples have lived in Bristol Bay since time immemorial, and the salmon, animals, berries and numerous other resources of the region are both a critical part of this ecosystem and a key source of food and subsistence fishing.
Believe it or not, this incredible place is also the site for the proposed Pebble Mine. If built, this gold, copper and molybdenum mine would be one of the largest mines in the world. The mine would result in a long list of irreversible threats: destroying sensitive salmon habitat, degrading the water quality and irreparably harming this dramatic and important ecosystem. Further, the open pit and tailings pond would forever be a sword hanging over the head of Bristol Bay—a tailings dam failure would be catastrophic for fish populations and the marine and in-river ecosystems.
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The fight to keep Pebble Mine out of Bristol Bay has been long and hard-fought, and has taken many twists and turns. In 2014, under the Obama administration, the EPA concluded that the mine would cause irreversible and unacceptable damage to the Bristol Bay ecosystem and used its authority under the Clean Water Act to prohibit construction. In 2019, the Trump administration withdrew EPA’s decision to protect Bristol Bay.
That decision officially re-started the Army Corps of Engineers permitting process. In 2019, Ocean Conservancy members and many others commented on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the mine. In that process, more than 700,000 comments opposed Pebble Mine’s plan.
In late July, the Trump administration released a final EIS concluding that the mine would not have substantial impacts on the ecosystem. That decision would have allowed the mine to proceed. Then, abruptly last week, the administration reversed course, and the Army Corps announced that the mine cannot be permitted as proposed. The Corps is now requiring the company proposing the mine to develop and submit mitigation measures in the next 90 days to address the harms to the watershed and salmon. The change of heart seems to have come about after a series of unlikely allies including Donald Trump Jr., Fox News commenter Tucker Carlson and Nick Ayers, former Chief of Staff to Vice President Mike Pence, chimed in against Pebble Mine.
What does this decision mean? While it does not kill Pebble Mine, it does put up a big hurdle. Many agree that the mitigation measures required are nearly impossible to achieve in this type of environment, nonetheless the mine developers have said they will try.
The Pebble Mine fight has as many twists and turns as the rivers of Bristol Bay. This latest development doesn’t mean the fight is over, but it is a step in the right direction, and welcome news for a 2020 that’s had more downs than ups!