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Long-Awaited EPA Study on Pebble Mine Finds Potentially Catastrophic Impacts to Bristol Bay Salmon Fisheries

Completing a three -year scientific peer-reviewed process, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its final Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment today, concluding that Pebble Mine would have “significant” and even “catastrophic” impacts—including the certain dewatering, destruction and pollution of the Bristol Bay watershed.

The proposed Pebble Mine would destroy up to 94 miles of streams, devastate up to 5.350 acres of wetlands, ponds and lakes, harm a native lifestyle dependent on subsistence fishing, and threaten a salmon industry that generates $480 million in direct economic expenditures in 2009 and supports 14,000 jobs. The mine faces more than 80 percent local opposition and lost its key funder, Anglo American, last year.

“This is a scientific indictment of the Pebble Mine—or any other large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed," said Joel Reynolds, western director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The assessment documents what we’ve feared for years—Pebble Mine would destroy the world-class wild salmon fishery, cost jobs and endanger the communities and wildlife that depend on it." 

Proposed at the headwaters of the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery, Pebble Mine would threaten the region’s internationally renowned salmon runs. Every year, an average of 37.5 million wild sockeye salmon return to Bristol Bay, making up nearly half of the world’s supply of sockeye salmon. Salmon are the economic, cultural and ecological linchpin of the region, supporting a wild salmon fishery that generates nearly $480 million in direct economic expenditures and employs 14,000 workers, a traditional native subsistence lifestyle, and vibrant wildlife.

The proposed mine would risk this economic, cultural and ecological powerhouse by gouging one of the world's largest gold and copper mines out of the headwaters of Bristol Bay. It would generate up to 10 billion tons of contaminated waste that would have to be stored in perpetuity at the headwaters of the region’s famed salmon runs.

“The watershed assessment is objective, clear and grounded in sound science," said Reynolds. "It was conducted over several years and confirms what the residents of the region have long understood: that large scale mining in this place would pose an unacceptable risk."

The EPA’s assessment is another hurdle facing the already beleaguered mine. The EPA has taken precaution to ensure that its assessment represents the most comprehensive science regarding large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed. The agency’s process has taken more than three years and has involved two rounds of review by independent scientists, numerous public hearings, and two public comment periods that generated more than 1.1 million comments. During the second comment period alone, more than 650,000 people supported the EPA’s findings, including 84 percent of Alaskans and 98 percent of Bristol Bay residents who submitted written comments. 

“The time for study is over. It’s now up to EPA to take regulatory action to stop the Pebble Mine," Reynolds concluded. "It’s time for the EPA to protect American jobs and a vibrant salmon industry by taking action under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to permanently protect the fishery and water resources of Bristol Bay—and the economic engine and environmental, social and cultural resources that they sustain.”

Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY and WATER pages for more related news on this topic.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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