Compass: Pebble threat to Bristol Bay salmon is real

Bristol Bay produces about half the world's wild sockeye salmon supply and the world's largest, most valuable, sustainable, wild salmon fishery; runs average 20-40 million. According to the University of Alaska's Institute for Social and Economic Research, Bristol Bay's commercial fishery in 2010 created $1.5 billion in U.S. output and 10,000 full-time-equivalent jobs. Alaskans own the majority (1,474) of fishing permits and in 2010, about 7,000 people fished while 5,000 processed salmon. Bristol Bay salmon sustain lucrative recreational fisheries and represent food security for 25 rural Alaska Native villages and thousands of people. The commercial fishery has endured since 1884 and Alaska Natives have subsisted in-region for at least 4,000 years.

Currently, 800 square miles of mining claims, including Pebble, Big Chunk, Groundhog, and others are under exploration in headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers. These rivers drain about half of Bristol Bay and produce about half of Bristol Bay salmon. Nine federally-recognized tribes, the Alaska Native regional corporation for Bristol Bay, and commercial and sport fishing interests petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to use it's authority under the Clean Water Act to protect fisheries. EPA responded by preparing a thorough, transparent, fact-based, peer-reviewed scientific assessment of potential mining impacts on salmon ecosystems of Bristol Bay. Every Alaskan with an interest in salmon sustainability should read the on-line EPA executive summary or fact sheet. If anything, EPA underestimates impacts. The perpetual risks to be managed by future generations are sobering.

Sen. Cathy Giessel (Compass, Feb. 15), who clearly supports a massive mining complex at the salmon's expense, questions EPA's authority and disparages EPA's assessment of what she calls an "imaginary resource development." Pebble is not imaginary and risks to Bristol Bay salmon are real. And Alaska's permitting process is designed to give permits, not to conserve salmon. Nowhere in the process does anyone have the responsibility to ask, or the authority to answer, the larger question of whether a private mine should be built at the expense of public salmon resources.

Developing about half of Pebble is estimated to cost 94 stream miles in the mine footprint alone, and would likely be permitted in exchange for a mitigation plan to "compensate" for salmon losses. After my many years of "mitigating" such habitat destruction, I consider mitigation-promised fish as "paper fish," because such promises are rarely kept. Opportunities to restore or enhance salmon in Bristol Bay's currently intact watersheds are about nil. As we've learned from the Lower 48, the probability of "restoration" success is very low.

EPA rigorously considered mining risks and based its realistic mine scenarios on plans commissioned by Northern Dynasty, state of the art mining and mitigation techniques, and optimistic assumptions that no significant human or engineering failures would occur. Given that EPA quantified impacts from developing up to just half of Pebble and did not quantify impacts from port facilities, power, urbanization and other infrastructure, actual impacts would be much greater. Further, permitted mines in Alaska tend to expand. The ever expanding Red Dog, listed multiple years as the nation's top toxic chemical polluter, emitted 777 million pounds in 2010 alone. Despite a pledge to pipe pollution into the sea instead of into the Village of Kivalina's water supply, river pollution continues and is increasing -- all legal, all permitted. Bottled water anyone?

Bristol Bay's wild salmon resource contrasts starkly to the Lower 48, where salmon are extirpated from 40 percent of their range and populations are at less than 10 percent of historic abundance. What happened down south? They permitted alteration or elimination of salmon habitat based on the belief we could mitigate and compensate for losses. Now non-self-sustaining hatchery fish prop up fisheries and over $1 billion is spent annually attempting to restore lost salmon runs.

The scientific record is clear. The best way to conserve Alaska's sustainable wild salmon is to conserve their habitats. Proposed large-scale mining presents significant risks to the salmon fueling Bristol Bay's proven economic engine. Assertions that Pebble and salmon can "co-exist" are false propaganda.

Dr. Carol Ann Woody is a former federal fisheries scientist, a past-president of the Alaska Chapter of the American Fisheries Society and serves on the Western Division Environmental Concerns Committee. She currently works for the non-profit Center for Science in Public Participation, which provides research and technical advice to people impacted by mining.