Protecting the Salmon in Bristol Bay

Published on March 1, 2014

Bristol Bay, Alaska
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced in February that it is taking initial steps to restrict the development of a massive open-pit mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the headwaters of premier wild sockeye salmon runs. Bristol Bay is also home to sustainable commercial fisheries and a vibrant aquatic ecosystem.

The announcement came on the heels of an EPA report from January detailing the negative impacts of the proposed mine on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries. The Pebble Mine project was first put forward in 2008 by a Canadian-Brtish mining consortium. The foreign-owned companies claim the mine will bring essential jobs and infrastructure to Southwest Alaska. The emerging scientific studies say the mine would also produce billions of tons of waste runoff and cause irreversible damage to salmon populations, water quality, and ecosystem health.

As reports from both sides of this environmental and economic issue continue to mount, grassroots organizations throughout the Pacific Northwest remain engaged in the dialogue. In particular, local conservation organizations are drawing from five years of scientific research to raise awareness of the environmental hazards of the project. Their ultimate goal is to increase visibility and education around the issue and alert members of congress to urgent policy decisions.

Bristol Bay United and the Alaska Conservation Foundation are two organizations at the forefront of the information-gathering central to the Bristol Bay Pebble Mine conversation. They work in the interest of sustaining Alaska’s vital environmental systems as well as supporting the interest of local fishing communities. Erol Foundation has given an initial grant to each group to further their environmentally-conscious work. We are especially interested in the research around methods for containing toxins in areas with seismic activity, and the potential threat it poses to the local ecosystem, economy, and way of life.

After months of grassroots advocacy work from Bristol Bay United, with support from the Alaska Conservation Fund and other partners, U.S. Senator Mark Begish (D-AK) came out in opposition to the mine, saying in an interview that there are “too many potential long-term impacts to a fishery that is pretty critical to the area, to Alaska and to world markets.” Senator Begish supported the EPA’s assessment and recommends taking further action to formally protect the natural waterways and world-famous salmon runs in the area.

These efforts have caught the attention of the Obama administration, which announced in early March that it was halting the proposed mining project until it can fully evaluate the research and decide whether to prohibit Pebble Mine permanently.

Erol Foundation will continue to follow this important story as it develops and plans to learn more about the intersection of sustainable industry and environment in Alaska.

The EPA’s full assessment is available online at: http://www2.epa.gov/bristolbay.