EPA Holding Public Hearing On Bristol Bay Mining Risk Assessment

Jason Lake has been fishing in Bristol Bay for 25 years. Photo by Ashley Ahearn

The Environmental Protection Agency is holding a public hearing in Seattle on Thursday on the risk assessment the agency recently released looking at how mining could impact the Bristol Bay ecosystem. It’s the first in a series of meetings that will continue in Alaska next week.

Bristol Bay, in Southwestern Alaska, is the home of one of the world’s largest runs of Sockeye salmon. In fact, all five types of salmon spawn in the bay’s freshwater tributaries.

Bristol Bay could also become the home of a new mine to extract copper gold and other metals.

The Environmental Protection Agency has released a risk assessment study on how mining could impact the ecosystem there. The Agency will hold a public hearing in Seattle Thursday.

Ashley Ahearn reports that fishermen in the Northwest are watching the process closely.

Fisherman’s terminal in Seattle is all a-bustle this time of year.

Bearded, weathered-looking men are checking nets, sanding down hulls and climbing around on boats. They’re getting ready to make the trip to the rich salmon fishing grounds of Alaska. They’ve done this for decades.

“Yeah let’s run it all the way down. All the way down and put a new hole in the engine room bulkhead…”

Ray Foresman and Jason Lake are reconnecting steering lines on Foresman’s ship, the Silver Isle. It’s a 60-foot fishing vessel that’ll be heading to Alaska in the coming days.

“Right. I’ll look in the engine room and see. I don’t think there’s any obstructions there.”

Jason Lake doesn’t miss a beat when I ask him about Pebble Mine – the one that could be built near Bristol Bay. He’s been fishing there for 25 years.

“No, they put that mine in and it’s going to be the worst thing for Bristol Bay. Look what every other mine’s done. It’s just a sad deal,” Lake said.

Lake’s not alone in his concerns. Fishermen around the northwest fear mining in this pristine watershed could destroy spawning habitat and hurt their industry. Nearly 1,000 Washingtonians hold commercial fishing permits in Bristol Bay, bringing in over 100 million dollars a year in revenue to the state. Sport fisherman in Oregon and Washington bring in close to another hundred million each year from fishing in the Bristol Bay watershed.

That’s prompted politicians in both states to call on the Environmental Protection Agency to step in.

And the EPA listened.

The agency just released a report that’s over 1000 pages long and assesses risks to 20,000 square miles surrounding Bristol Bay.

The report says mining could block streams and reduce water quality. Road development and waste storage facilities could destroy habitat.

Just to be clear though: the mining companies haven’t yet submitted an application for a permit to mine.

Mike Heatwole is a spokesman for the Pebble Partnership – which represents the mining companies interested in Bristol Bay.

“For such an important subject to be rushing through a study when there is no permit application and full information in front of an agency is of extreme concern to us and we’re not alone in that,” Heatwole said.

The Alaska Attorney General wrote a letter to the EPA saying that the agency’s review is “unlawfully preemptive, arbitrary, capricious and vague”.

The letter also said the state will explore all available legal options if the EPA tries to exert any authority under the Clean Water Act.”

Dennis McLerran is the head of EPA region 10 – which includes AK and the Northwest.

He says the EPA has not made any decisions about regulatory action on Pebble Mine. Right now they’re gathering information.

“We think we have very clear authority to do science and study watersheds and we’ve used that extensively around the country so any discussion about regulatory authority is something that should come later down the road,” McLerran said.

The EPA will hold public hearings about the report in Seattle and Alaska.

The Pebble Partnership is in the process of finalizing plans for the mine now and could submit a permit application by the end of the year.

Bristol Bay opens for salmon fishing on Friday.

Ashley Ahearn reports for the public media collaborative, EarthFix, in Seattle.

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