What you need to know about Pebble Mine

Nushagak Bay
Nushagak Bay, which opens on to Bristol Bay, Alaska. (Photo Credit: Drew McIntyre)

If fishing in Alaska is on your bucket list, you can still count Bristol Bay and its incredible salmon riches as a destination. But there's no small bit of controversy around a recent environmental assessment of what mining in that area that is important to know about, for both commercial fisheries and recreational anglers.

What's Pebble Mine all about, anyway?

On January 15, 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency released their final assessment of the potential impact mining a rich mineral deposit located in watersheds affecting Bristol Bay, Alaska. More than a thousand recreational sporting groups and businesses opposed to operations in the southwest Alaska region immediately issued a press release urging the lawmakers to “follow the science” to protect the area’s rich wildlife, which includes 37.5 million sockeye salmon on an annual basis, or roughly 50% of the world’s supply.

The EPA assessment has been three years in the making and does not set out any specific policy recommendations. In fact, it does not assess actual operations of a specific company or proposal, instead taking a broad mandate to evaluate any such potential activities in the area.

Some – namely, the mining corporation interested in developing the site – say that the EPA has gone too far , and that the pre-emptive submission of the assessment sets a dangerous precedent for the US regulatory system. Because large corporations love regulation (but let’s not get sidetracked). They’re asking for comments from the public to “discourage the agency from undermining economic diversity in Alaska.” You can read about that, here.

The players

The mining partnership: Northern Dynasty is a Canadian company that owns 100% of the Pebble Partnership, which proposed to mine the deposit. Northern was left holding the bag after British partner Anglo American dropped out late in 2013, stating “We have taken the decision to withdraw following a thorough assessment of Anglo American’s extensive pipeline of long-dated project options.” Meaning (possibly) “we’re not sure this is really going anywhere, Northern. It’s not you. It’s us.”

Northern believes that the assessment is fundamentally flawed, because it is based on outdated mining practices and technologies that do not match what Northern Dynasty proposes for the Pebble Mine project, and that Alaskans are generally suspicious of the EPA. Their website is really nice.

The locals: You name it, they’re on it. Sportsman alliances. The American Sportfishing Association. Several Native tribes. Patagonia bloggers. Thousands of sporting groups and businesses, from big-time brands to small local outfits, from recreational anglers to the canneries that fish the Bay, have voiced their concern about what a mine at that location would mean for the area.

The assessors: Several Bristol Bay Native tribes approached the EPA in 2010 to take action under the Clean Water Act to protect the watershed and salmon resources from the proposed Pebble Mine project. Northern Dynasty had not yet initiated the mine permitting process at that time, and other tribes asked the EPA to hold up on starting the assessment process until a permit had been tabled.

The EPA went ahead with their assessment. It took three years to compile, and the final assessment was released on January 15, 2014. You can read the full assessment here.

So what happens now?

That pretty website may be the only shiny object that Northern Dynasty pulls out of the Pebble Mine deposit any time soon, no matter how “flawed” they believe the assessment may be. The EPA notes in their press release that the agency did, in fact, use data submitted by Northern Dynasty to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, including a preliminary assessment detailing three mining scenarios for 25, 45, and 78 years of open pit mining. The 45 year scenario was used for the report.

In an interview with the Anchorage Daily News on January 20, 2014, US Senator Mark Begich stated his opposition to the project in the wake of the assessment. Begich, who previously stated he wanted science to guide his decision, gave this ringing sound bite: “Wrong mine, wrong place, too big.” He’s the first member of Alaska’s current congressional delegation to state his opposition. Other Senators have blasted the EPA for overreaching their mandate on the assessment.

Northen, through the pretty Pebble website, is “disappointed” in Begich and made the argument that not many Alaskans think the EPA is impartial, and that scientific “differences of opinion” can be resolved by statute process and that there’s “no environmental harm whatsoever” that will be caused by allowing Pebble into that process. Now Northern. Let’s not get huffy, or anything.

“As a scientific report,” writes the EPA in their press release, “this study does not recommend policy or regulatory decisions.” Of course, policy and regulatory decisions will likely consider the report’s findings to set forward a clear path for the area’s development.

Though the EPA report does not stop Northern from submitting proposals to mine the area, the report presents a significant hurdle for any company hoping to get a shovel in the ground up there. “Bristol Bay can last forever if we simply change nothing,” says Drew McIntyre, a merchant mariner who submitted a thoughtful email to World Fishing Network about his experiences supporting the sockeye canneries in the Bay area. “Other areas of the world haven’t been so lucky.”

What do you think?

Is the EPA playing fair, here? This is a huge blow to any development in the area. Did they overreach?

What do you think will happen next?

Could the Pebble Partnership website really BE any prettier? And why did Anglo back out, anyway?

More reading on this topic

Tim Sohn has been covering this for the Huffington Post and has a book on the go. Read Tim’s coverage here

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