Between Seattle and Bristol Bay, a critical connection crosses 1,700 ocean miles. Though relatively distant as the crow flies, these two coastal locales are pivotal to one another, linked by a world-class sustainable fishing industry that supplies half of the planet’s sockeye salmon.
The pristine Alaskan headwaters that spawn these salmon are central to the health of this industry and many Indigenous communities whose culture has been tied to salmon since time immemorial. But this vital salmon run is in danger. The next six months may be our last, best chance to save Bristol Bay.
To understand their true value, we must look to the landscape that produces and sustains Bristol Bay’s salmon. The region’s ecologically intact watersheds boast wild rivers, vast lakes, tundra, forests and wetlands. But the federal government is fast-tracking a mining project that will put the headwaters of two pristine rivers, the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers, at direct and irreparable risk. Some places on Earth are too special to develop, no matter the interest — this is one of them.
Late last month, the Army Corps of Engineers released its Final Environmental Impact Statement for the development of Pebble Mine, paving the way for federal permits. The Corps’ statement, however, is the result of a failed and scientifically inadequate process. The statement has gaps in crucial science, and it offers no legitimate basis for a decision about Bristol Bay’s future.
We have both spent time flying above Bristol Bay: One of us as a fisherman-pilot, and another as U.S. Secretary of the Interior, overseeing Alaska’s diverse and stunning public lands. From the skies, the interconnectedness of this vast landscape is unmistakable. The richness of the ecosystem — from bear families to caribou herds, to the fish and the countless shades of green surrounding them — is simply extraordinary.
Bristol Bay’s nature also provides broad economic value. Globally, its salmon alone support a $1.5 billion sustainable fishing industry, and the industry supports 12,500 jobs across the U.S. These wild salmon runs are a perfect example of a gift that keeps on giving. Bristol Bay shows us in powerful ways that economy can align with ecology. We can protect a vital engine for jobs and steward wild rivers. We can sustain a globally important fishing industry in harmony with thriving Indigenous cultures and homelands.
Pebble Mine puts all of this in direct peril. This mine would be one of the world’s largest, extracting tons of gold, copper and molybdenum ore. It is devastating to imagine the damage. Development will not only harm miles of wetlands and rivers, but long-term safety is dubious at best.
The mine will destroy salmon habitat in Bristol Bay watersheds, with impacts far exceeding the scientific thresholds set by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2014. Threats rise exponentially over the long-term, as the mine’s developers plan to store and treat toxic wastewater in perpetuity through unproven, highly complex systems and technologies.
Further, the impact statement does not account for damage due to a failure in the mine’s dam to hold this toxic waste. It is standard industry practice to assess a potential dam failure, yet the Army Corps did not evaluate this critical scenario. Science shows that a small dam breach would deposit toxins in 155 miles of salmon habitat, and a large breach could send toxins 200 river miles out to the bay. Bristol Bay’s headwaters rest in the shadow of active volcanos like Mount Iliamna, and this area is known to be one of the country’s most seismically active. With toxic waters stored forever, a catastrophe is inevitable. And even without drastic events, water always finds its way down. Every day across our country, hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines leach millions of gallons of toxic water into streams, rivers, lakes and ecosystems, rendering them incapable of supporting life. The companies that mined them are long-since gone.
In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency rightfully halted Pebble Mine’s development. In 2019, Congress stated that sound science must dictate the resurrected review process. Based on the Final Environmental Impact Statement, the science is clearly not there. We strongly urge the EPA to veto the Clean Water Act permit for Pebble Mine, and we call on Congress to demand the same.