Bristol Bay salmon runs protected as EPA halts mine development

Jan 31, 2023, 10:09 AM | Updated: 10:12 am
bristol bay...
A workman pulls a bag filled with sockeye salmon onto the dock at the Peter Fan Seafoods Co. support facility in Naknek. The town is a center for the sockeye salmon fishing industry of Bristol Bay. Former canneries like Peter Pan have given way to modern processing facilities that prep, pack and ship fresh salmon to markets around the globe. Every summer, hundreds of fishing boats and thousands of workers descend on the town to profit from the largest wild salmon run in the world. Naknek is where sockeye salmon begin their runs from salt water to the fresh waters of streams and spawning grounds around Lake Iliamna. The fishing industry in Naknek is largely opposed to the proposed Pebble Mine, which would be developed about 120 miles upstream. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The EPA won a 12-year battle for a cleaner habitat for one of the state’s most iconic natural resources, salmon. They are taking a big step to protect Bristol Bay, the most productive wild salmon ecosystem in the world.

They did this by blocking the development of the Pebble Mine project, a pit mine whose waste would have flown downstream and into Bristol Bay. The project, which would have extracted gold, copper, and molybdenum located in the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers, two of the eight major rivers that feed Bristol Bay, threatened irreparable harm to the watershed.

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In 2020, the EPA found that more than 191 miles of streams and 4,614 acres of wetlands would be impacted during construction of the Pebble Mine, with 185 miles ad 3,841 acres of wetlands permanently damaged or destroyed.

The agency says it’s enforcing the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay’s waters, which sit off the southwest coast of Alaska, by making the lands around the bay and the mine off-limits for use as a disposal site.

Two decades of data have led them to conclude that discharges from local companies will have unacceptable adverse effects on salmon fishery areas.

The EPA’s decision has drawn widespread approval from environmentalists, those in the fishing industry, and local politicians, including Sen. Maria Cantwell.

“This is the final nail in the coffin for the Pebble Mine. The science is clear, the mine would have devastated Bristol Bay salmon and the thousands of hardworking families that depend on salmon for their livelihoods, subsistence, and recreation,” said Sen. Cantwell. “The EPA’s decision to permanently protect Bristol Bay is the culmination of a hard-fought battle, and I am proud to have stood with fishing families, communities, Tribes, and the whole Pacific Northwest Region to oppose the Pebble Mine for more than a decade. Now, we will have a thriving Bristol Bay salmon run for generations to come.”

The Pebble Limited Partnership, the group that proposed the mine, argues that the decision is not supported legally and says they will file a lawsuit to challenge the EPA.

“Today’s action by the EPA to preemptively veto the proposed Pebble Project is unlawful and unprecedented. For well over a decade, we have argued that fair treatment under the rules and regulations of the U.S. should be followed for Pebble or any other development project. Unfortunately, the Biden EPA continues to ignore fair and due process in favor of politics,” Pebble Limited CEO John Shively said in a statement. “This preemptive action against Pebble is not supported legally, technically, or environmentally. As such, the next step will likely be to take legal action to fight this injustice.”

Bristol Bay is one of the most productive salmon runs in the world, with 40-60 million salmon returning to the watershed every year. Bristol Bay generates 500 million dollars annually for Washington state and supports 5,000 jobs.

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Bristol Bay salmon runs protected as EPA halts mine development