The most recent attempts to revive the Pebble Mine proposal and roll back sensible limits on mining activity in one of the finest fishing destinations on Earth
Even by Alaskan standards—and we’re lucky to have our pick of remote streams with big and plentiful fish—Bristol Bay is a sporting paradise. It is recognized as one of the finest fishing destinations on Earth, tucked away in an isolated corner of southwest Alaska. The region also produces about half the world’s sockeye salmon, with a record 60 million fish returning last summer to our famed rivers.
There’s no question that Bristol Bay is unique, and yet we continue to have to speak up to make sure it stays that way. Here’s why.
Getting Past Pebble
The now-infamous proposed Pebble Mine would carve out an open pit at the headwaters of the Bay’s two largest rivers, threatening clean water and fish habitat. Somewhere between 1.2 billion and 11 billion tons of mine waste could then remain in the area, forever.
That’s why anglers, recreation businesses, tribes, chefs, commercial fishermen, conservation organizations, and hundreds of thousands of Americans came together to successfully take the proposed mine from a done deal to a less-than-popular project—it has lost three major partners, but the mine’s remaining proponent, Northern Dynasty Minerals, is still looking for new investors.
Together, we’ve successfully created major hurdles for Pebble, and in 2014, there was enough widespread public support to place sensible limits on mining in the region. In 2017, the EPA attempted to roll back limits on mining, but those who recognize the value of Bristol Bay had something to say about it—and the agency listened. The EPA received over one million public comments in response to their attempts to withdraw proposed protections for Bristol Bay, and surprisingly, the agency announced in January 2018 that they would keep these protections on the table.
Though the protections are not final, they haven’t been eliminated, as we feared. Additionally, the Army Corps of Engineers cannot issue a final permit for Pebble Mine while a review of these protections is ongoing. And while the Pebble Partnership has been touting that it has a green light on all fronts to proceed, our decision makers are expressing serious reservations about the possibility that mining in Bristol Bay can happen safely—even in a pro-development political environment. EPA Administrator Pruitt and Governor Walker both made very strong statements on the heels of the announcement to maintain protections.
Why Aren’t We Celebrating?
Though this is a huge victory, Pebble Mine backers are gaining momentum and the fight is far from over. The vigorous support of hunters and anglers has been critical to protecting the bounty of Bristol Bay in the past. But we will to speak up again, as early as this spring.
At the end of 2017, Pebble Limited Partnership applied for the first of many dozens of permits they’ll need, and this kicked off a multi-year NEPA review and Environmental Impact Statement process. Mine opponents will continue to demonstrate at every level that for scientific, economic, and cultural reasons, Pebble should not be granted a permit.
What You Can Do
We expect the federal agencies to open a scoping comment period soon, and this is the first major step of the EIS process. Sportsmen and women need to make our voices heard once again during that process. Additionally, Alaskans are advocating for options at the state level that, if enacted, would establish higher hurdles for Pebble to overcome to get approval for its state permits.
As an Alaskan, a mother, and an angler, I’d like to thank the thousands of sportsmen and women from across the country who have already spoken up time and again to tell decision makers at all levels that Pebble Mine is not worth the risk in Bristol Bay. We’ve seen that when enough of us do so, we are heard.
Nelli Williams is Trout Unlimited’s Alaska Director. She has worked on the effort to safeguard Bristol Bay’s fish, wildlife, communities and jobs for nearly a decade. She lives in Anchorage, Alaska with her husband and two young children – they get out fishing and playing on Alaska’s rivers every chance they get.
Top photo courtesy of Ben Knight and Wild Salmon Center.