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The Bay and the Mine: Reflections on June 5 Slow Fish Crew Together Webinar

Written by Daniel Leipow

The Bay

Bristol Bay is home to a pristine and thriving ecosystem. Its fishery produces 47% of the value of Alaska’s salmon harvest and is the world’s most productive Sockeye Salmon fishery. Between fishing and tourism, Bristol Bay’s pristine waters support economies generating nearly 20,000 jobs and $1.5 billion annually. It is home to 25 federally recognized tribes whose traditional lifeways have been maintained for at least 4000 years.

Wild fisheries like Bristol Bay are increasingly scarce. It is estimated that 70% of global fish stocks are in crisis, and one report suggests that Earth’s last wild fishery will have collapsed by 2050, if ocean management does not change. If you have ever enjoyed Atlantic Salmon, for example, it is interesting to know that all Atlantic Salmon on the market is farm raised, since wild stocks  collapsed as a result of dams, pollution and overfishing, consequently shutting down the commercial Atlantic salmon industry in 1948. Bristol Bay Fishermen have resisted this trend, sustainably managing their robust and profitable salmon stocks, which still remain healthy.

The Mine

In 2001, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., (Dynasty) turned their speculations to a copper, gold, and molybdenum deposit in southwest Alaska, one of the world’s largest deposits remaining in the ground. Five years later, plans for their proposed Pebble Mine revealed that in order to access these precious metals, it would be necessary to grind up billions of tons of the region’s sulfur-rich ore and store it in a lake created by a proposed 700-foot tall earthen dam – the world’s largest. That ground ore acidifies when exposed and toxifies its surrounding environment, spreading through slurry and tainted water. The proposed location of Pebble Mine and its waste containment lake is in the watershed feeding Bristol Bay.

In 2010, six local tribes petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to investigate the proposed Pebble Mine. A three-year investigation – receiving 1.2 million public comments and peer reviewed by two 12-person teams – resulted in a 2014 ‘proposed determination’ from the EPA to restrict large-scale mining in the area. Dynasty sued the EPA, stalling the finalization of EPA’s ruling, as well as the procedure of the mine. This move, as you will see, paid off.

Why Now (the tough part)

In a nutshell, the ‘why now’ is that the head of the EPA is a political appointee. The first EPA administrator appointed by President Trump was Scott Pruitt, an industry insider who took immediate and concerted efforts to undo the work the EPA had done in assessing the risks of the mine in its 2014 report. Pruitt settled Dynasty’s ongoing lawsuit in May of 2017 lifting the preliminary injunction on the mine, and giving Dynasty a 30-month window to submit a mining proposal to the Army Corps of Engineers. The intention was to complete the mine’s permitting, grandfathering in its approval within the first term of Trump’s presidency, resulting in the quickest processing of “any project of this size and type in American history”.

The years following Pruitt’s settlement brought a string of unprecedented legal interpretations and oversights. A new rule was written that swept aside the EPA’s previous findings, deeming them ‘preemptive.’ When Pruitt resigned from his post as EPA Administrator, he was replaced with Andrew Wheeler, who had worked at the consulting firm employed by Pebble Mine when the May 2017 lawsuit settlement meetings were arranged with Pruitt. Wheeler’s proximity to the Pebble Mine project was such that he was forced to formally recuse himself from decision-making that related to it. Wheeler’s other past affiliations include serving as a longtime aide to climate-denier James Inhofe, and a lobbyist for some of the U.S.’s largest coal, chemical, and uranium companies. His career has been built in gathering resistance to EPA’s regulatory process.

Outside of the EPA, other efforts aimed to ensure Pebble Mine’s permit were leveraged as well. Passed in 2015, a new bill ‘FAST-41’ (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) was passed to streamline the construction of major infrastructure projects. Dynasty lobbied to add ‘mining’ as a project category eligible for permit-streamlining under FAST-41. In January of this year that lobbying proved successful, and mining projects now benefit from special consideration that had been intended for transportation projects.

The process for permitting Pebble Mine’s proposal is flawed. Pebble Mine’s proposed duration is 20 years, during which time it is estimated that only 11% of the valuable minerals could be unearthed. In order to be economically viable, the mine will have to persist beyond that timeframe. The proposal also fails to mention procedures for closure of the mine, focusing only on the risks within a 20-year span. All indications suggest that Dynasty is wedging its foot in the door for an initial permit that it will expand over a timeframe much longer and riskier than its proposal, storing billions of tons of toxic waste material held in the country’s largest and most rapidly-permitted earthen dam, in a seismically active region upwater of North America’s greatest remaining salmon fishery. 

Per the Clean Water Act, it falls to the EPA to pursue legal action against any threats to US waters, but the EPA has been actively complicit as the Army Corps of Engineers proceeds in its permitting Pebble Mine at record pace. On May 28, 2020, the EPA administrator overseeing the Alaska region sent a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers noting that Pebble Mine “may well contribute to the permanent loss of 2,292 acres of wetlands and other waters is anticipated, including 105.4 miles of streams”, but mentioned no formal objections at this phase.

What Next

Despite overwhelming evidence of ecological danger and a native populace that opposes the mine 35% more often than they support it, the permitting battle lasting over a decade is estimated to wrap up within the next few months.  With the period for public comment elapsed and the EPA effectively undermined, the only remaining avenue to save Bristol Bay is to raise public awareness in the hopes that an advocate will take up the cause from within the halls of congress. Native leaders and fishing captains have banded together to support each other as they watch this dire situation unfold. To see the faces and better understand the culture of Bristol Bay, check out the latest Slow Fish Crew Together Webinar: the Story of Salmon. Write your congressperson and tell them to stand up for due process, for Bristol Bay, for its people, and for the salmon on your dinner plate. You can find your representative here.