OPINION: Bristol Bay demands action by the EPA


Something remarkable is happening here in Alaska right now. Many tens of millions of wild salmon are swimming up into the cold lakes and rivers of a breathtaking region called Bristol Bay. What’s even more astonishing? It happens every summer.

But if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, doesn’t act now to protect these productive lands and waters by stopping the Pebble mine, the largest open-pit mine ever proposed for North America, we risk losing them forever.

Here’s what’s at stake. Even by Alaska’s standards, Bristol Bay stands out: For starters, it produces more wild salmon than anywhere else on Earth. Coastal brown bears, beluga whales and bald eagles all come for a spectacular summer bounty produced by the salmon migration. This year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicts a record return of wild sockeye salmon — 74 million fish — enough to circle the Earth almost twice.

This is a national treasure, fully deserving Clean Water Act protections. EPA’s proposal follows comprehensive science reviews evaluating impacts as well as a permit denial from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Action by the EPA now would protect key lands and waters of Bristol Bay, just as federally recognized tribes formally asked the agency to do more than a decade ago.

The Indigenous caretakers of Bristol Bay — the Yup’ik, Dena’ina and Alutiiq people — continue to maintain a traditional way of life sustained by this natural abundance. These salmon are important to their food security and cultural health. Bristol Bay is also the center of Alaska’s famed sustainable wild salmon industry. A small-boat commercial fishing fleet of about 2,000 independently owned vessels—every single one of them a family-owned business — brings in more than half the world’s wild sockeye salmon harvest. These small but mighty boats sustain an industry valued at $2.2 billion annually. Additionally, a tourism industry based on wildlife viewing and sport fishing continues to grow, helping to sustain the economy.

So far, Bristol Bay remains wild and healthy, but with weak protections in place, the region’s clean water, economy and time-honored way of life are all vulnerable to the proposed Pebble mine, which a majority of local residents have campaigned against for more than 20 years. Throughout Alaska, among many sectors and in both political parties, there’s a broad consensus that Pebble is the “wrong mine in the wrong place,” as the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens said.

Fortunately, the Clean Water Act provides for an emergency brake to protect clean water and natural resources like salmon: the Section 404(c) process. Using 404(c) is almost as rare as a place like Bristol Bay. Though the Army Corps of Engineers has authorized approximately 74,000 permit activities under Section 404 each year since the Clean Water Act became law 50 years ago, the EPA has used its 404(c) authority to veto projects only 13 times. This means the 404(c) authority has been exercised on fewer than a minuscule 0.00035% of all project applications.

Think of it this way: 404(c) is extremely rare, offering a safeguard rarely called upon and rarely necessary. Yet a place as rare as Alaska’s Bristol Bay and all it supports deserves safeguarding.

As proposed, Pebble mine would permanently destroy, at a minimum, 8.5 miles of salmon streams, 91.2 miles of additional streams that support anadromous streams, and at least 2,113 acres of wetlands. And we know that the company plans a larger mine in the long term. For a fully functioning ecosystem like Bristol Bay, throwing away any part of it does irreparable harm to the whole system.

Bristol Bay deserves to be the 14th place safeguarded in a 50-year history of a process used only for the most unique situations in the United States. Doing so is a vital step to ensure Bristol Bay’s healthy waters and salmon runs continue. It’s the solid assurance that this region needs.

With EPA action, Bristol Bay’s livelihoods, cherished ways of life and wild salmon summers can remain alive and well for generations to come.

MaryAnn Johnson is a lifelong subsistence user from Portage Creek and a board member for United Tribes of Bristol Bay. Fran Ulmer is the former lieutenant governor of Alaska, former chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage and current chair of The Nature Conservancy’s global board of directors.

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