The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today released a draft of its long-awaited study of the potential effects of large-scale mining on Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed and its famed salmon run. The report was initiated in February of 2011 as a response to requests from Bristol Bay residents and communities concerned about the proposed Pebble Mine, a massive copper, gold, and molybdenum deposit worth potentially hundreds of billions of dollars that happens to sit near the headwaters of two river systems—the Nushagak and the Kvichak—that together account for nearly half of Bristol Bay’s annual run of roughly 37 million salmon. And though the study’s target is pretty clear, the EPA was careful to paint the assessment in more general terms.
“This assessment is not about a single mine,” said Dennis McLerran, regional administrator for EPA Region 10, which encompasses the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, during a conference call with reporters. “Our primary intent is to understand the salmon and other ecological resources and how large-scale mining activity might impact them.”
And though the Pebble prospect, which has been explored for more than a decade, is close to becoming an active mine, there is good reason for the more generalized outlook: There are two dozen additional mining claims on State-owned lands in the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds.
The EPA’s conclusions are tepid, but negative. In a nutshell: Bristol Bay produces a lot of salmon, and salmon and mining don’t coexist well. Or, in McLerran’s words, “The report does conclude that there is a potential for certain activities associated with large-scale mining to have an adverse impact on the salmon population in the watershed.”
The EPA report has generated substantial buzz in Alaska in recent months. Pebble’s opponents are hoping it is the first step toward the EPA blocking the mine’s development by invoking its powers under Section 404c of the Clean Water Act. Pebble’s supporters, on the other hand, saw the action as a federal intrusion into an Alaskan issue. And though Governor Sean Parnell hasn’t taken a stand directly on the mine, he didn’t seem to approve of the EPA’s process, dispatching state attorney general Michael Geraghty to argue, via a March 9 letter, that the EPA was overstepping its authority and could potentially deprive the state of its mineral rights. (There is a good summary of that here.)
Protestations aside, the EPA is acting entirely within its powers in undertaking the study. The real question now is what happens next. Over the next 60 days, there will be a period of public comment on the report, including meetings with stakeholders in Bristol Bay. Then, toward the end of the summer, the report will be peer-reviewed by a panel of scientists, all of which will lead to a final version of the report being filed some time toward the end of the year. But this report, as McLerran emphasized, is just a starting point and does not represent any sort of decision on regulatory action.
“I want to be very clear that today’s release is a scientific assessment, not a regulatory decision,” McLerran said. “We have made no decision at this point about whether there would be a regualatory decision by the EPA, but we believe this document and this study give us a great deal of additional knowledge about this watershed.”