A draft study about the possible effects of mine development on salmon fisheries in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska was the topic of an Environmental Protection Agency hearing in Seattle on Thursday.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency held a hearing Thursday in Seattle to hear comment on a draft study about the possible effects of mine development in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska, where watersheds support the world’s largest wild sockeye-salmon runs.
A proposed mine in the region is a hotly contested issue in Alaska. Supporters say it would bring much-needed jobs to economically depressed rural areas and help diversify the state economy. But opponents fear it could fundamentally change the landscape and disrupt, if not destroy, a way of life.
Mine development also has attracted attention in Washington state, where commercial fishermen harvest Bristol Bay salmon each summer, and sport anglers prize the region’s pristine river and streams. At the Thursday hearing, many commenters opposed the mining development, but some offered support.
The EPA draft assessment does not look at a specific mining project and offers no verdict on whether mining should proceed in the region. It was spurred by the Pebble Mine Project, which the Pebble Partnership has called one of the largest deposits of its kind in the world.
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The partnership, which seeks to develop the mine, says the deposits have the potential of producing 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum over decades.
The EPA draft assessment found that failure of a dam built to hold tailings at a large-scale mine could degrade rivers and streams in the region for decades. The assessment put the annual probability of failure — the kind that could destroy more than 18 miles of salmon stream and degrade the habitat of more streams and rivers for decades — in the range of 1-in-10,000 for a project designed, built and operated using standard engineering practices, to 1-in-1 million for a state-of-the-art operation.
Even without failures, the agency said, there would be an impact on fish as a result of eliminated or blocked streams, removal of wetlands and reduction in the amount and quality of fish habitat as water was used for mine operations.
At the hearing Thursday, concern over threats to the Bristol Bay salmon runs was a common theme of mine foes.
“We have managed just fine for the past 10,000 years without them,” said Christina Salmon, a native of the Bristol Bay region, who said the proposed mine threatened her way of life.
But Sean McGee, a spokesman for Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., a Pebble Mine project partner, said the EPA study was “fundamentally flawed,” and reflected more political advocacy then science.
In a letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, urged the agency to consider the impact that mine development would have on Washington state jobs.
“Thousands of my constituents have contacted me expressing their concerns regarding the widespread, long-term impacts that the proposed Pebble Mine would have on the natural resources they rely on for their livelihoods,” Cantwell said. “This fishery is a unique and irreplaceable asset.”
Material compiled by Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton and The Associated Press
is included in this report.