The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Advances Alaska’s Pebble Mine Project

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Editors Note: This article is updated to reflect the decision by the U.S. Corps of Engineers to reject the permit as submitted for the disastrous Pebble Mine project.

In a sea of bad news, any good news is championed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the permit for the Pebble Mine project in Bristol Bay. The Army Corps found that the mine would likely result in significant damage to the environment, and rejected the permit under section 404 of the Clean Water Act.

“The Army Corps is right to delay the project and express doubts about the company’s ability to mine while protecting salmon,” says Guido Rahr, CEO of the Wild Salmon Center, in a statement. “Nothing Pebble does will offset the sheer magnitude of damage this mine will cause to Bristol Bay’s rivers, which support the most productive salmon fishery on Earth.”

The importance of the Bristol Bay region

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its final Environmental Impact Statement for the Pebble Mine earlier in August. The Wild Salmon Center characterizes the EIS as being “pushed through on a rushed and politically-motivated timeline,” which resulted in questionable science and dubious results that were roundly criticized by independent scientists, federal agencies, and Bristol Bay fishermen and community leaders.”

Bristol Bay region has the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, with over 50 million fish and counting this year. It produces about 46 percent of the world’s sockeye salmon. Bristol Bay’s salmon run fuels 14,000 commercial fishing jobs and a $1.5 billion economy that includes fishermen and processors in Alaska. The Nushagak River, which runs into Bristol Bay, supports one of the largest Chinook salmon and king salmon runs in the world. The Bristol Bay watershed is home to 29 fish species, over 190 bird species, and over 40 land animals. Sportfishing in the Bristol Bay region results in at least $75 million a year to the area’s economy.

Bristol Bay is also the traditional home of 31 federally recognized tribes who rely on fishing, hunting, and gathering of wild foods for sustenance. Up to 65 percent of the protein consumed in rural Alaskan communities comes from salmon.

Pebble Mine would be one of the largest open-pit copper/gold/molybdenum mines in the world, with a 60-stories tall earthen dam that would hold up to 10 billion tons of toxic tailings and contaminated water. Both the mine and tailings would be just north of Iliamna Lake, the largest lake in Alaska.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released an assessment in January 2014 that found the Pebble Mine project “could cause harm to the valuable fishery in Bristol Bay.” The assessment found that mining could destroy over 1,100 acres of wetland, five miles of salmon streams, and would pose “unacceptable” impacts to the Bristol Bay fishery. The mining project is expected to generate over 10 billion tons of toxic waste at the headwaters of Bristol Bay’s most important rivers.

“It’s time for EPA to step in under its legal authority and stop this mine,” said Emily Anderson, Wild Salmon Center’s Alaska director. “The science clearly supports EPA action. The communities in Bristol Bay overwhelmingly support it. And a healthy majority of the people of Alaska support it. It’s the right decision for Alaska and for the future of this national treasure.”