The developers of the giant proposed Pebble copper and gold mine have publicly stated that they will apply for government permits to build the mega-mine in late 2011. Despite the enormous environmental risks this project would pose to Bristol Bay, officials at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the lead state agency that regulates mining, have done nothing to protect the salmon-rich region. DNR officials echo the Pebble Limited Partnership's (PLP) mantra that "there is no project" yet despite the fact that PLP has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on baseline studies, engineering design work and public relations paving the ground for a massive sulfide mine that will inevitably leach acid mine drainage and other toxins into the waters of Bristol Bay. PLP has also submitted preliminary design plans that envision a massive open-pit mine that would span 54 square miles of state land in the sensitive headwaters of the bay.
The majority of Bristol Bay residents – most of whom are Alaska Natives - are fed up. In May 2010, six federally recognized tribes from Bristol Bay asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to do what the State of Alaska has failed to: protect the lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands that provide spawning habitat for Bristol Bay's world-class salmon runs. EPA has the authority to do this by invoking a section of the Clean Water Act that prevents waters of the United States from becoming dumping grounds for industrial waste.
"Sportsmen, tribes, commercial fishing groups and many other local interests are clearly united on one thing: the EPA needs to take a hard look at the impacts an industrial project like Pebble will have on the world's greatest salmon fishery. TU will continue work diligently with our partners to ensure the long-term future of this fishery," said Tim Bristol, director of Trout Unlimited Alaska.
For Pebble to get built, the mine developers will need what's called a 404 permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. The 404 permit allows the discharge of dredge or fill material (including mine waste) into waters of the United States. The EPA can stop this discharge from happening by either vetoing such a permit or by proactively determining that the Bristol Bay watershed is the wrong place to situate a toxic mine waste dump.
Trout Unlimited Alaska supports the tribes in their call for EPA action. Since May, the six tribes that petitioned EPA have been joined by the Bristol Bay Native Corp., the largest regional Native corporation in Southwest Alaska which represent 8,500 Eskimo, Aleut and Indian shareholders. Also joining them is the Bristol Bay Native Association, a tribal consortium representing all 31 federally recognized tribes from the area, along with the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Marketing Association, United Fishermen of Alaska and the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association.
We hope that EPA will respond positively to this important opportunity to protect the environmental justice interests of the aboriginal people of this region, along with the millions of salmon that spawn in Bristol Bay every summer and the thousands of people who harvest them for commercial, sport and subsistence purposes.
Stay tuned for more details on this developing story.