Bristol Bay, Alaska, is a wild, largely unspoiled eco-system. Over a half a million square miles of rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands support the largest remaining wild salmon populations and habitat on Earth. Millions of salmon return to their spawning grounds in the pristine waters of the bay each year. In turn, the salmon nourish the ecosystem and support a sustainable human economy that provides 14,000 full and part time jobs and is valued at about $480 million annually. The Native peoples of the region depend on the salmon for sustenance and during the annual salmon run fill their freezers and smokehouses for the coming year.
|EPA Photos from watershed assessment to understand how large-scale mining would impact water quality and habitat in the Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska via USEPAGOV on Flickr.
The Bay teems with wildlife: bears, wolves, waterfowl, caribou, raptors and migratory birds create a rich diversity. This is a region where for generations humans have threaded lightly and live in balance with nature.
Pebble Mine is a proposed mineral exploration project of massive scale. The project would mine gold, copper and other metals located in the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers, two of the eight major rivers that feed Bristol Bay. Pebble mine would be one of the largest mines in the world. Its developers are a consortium of the world’s second largest multi-national mining corporation, London based Anglo-American and a Canadian mining company, Northern Dynasty.
In order to mine billions of tons of raw ore from the earth, an enormous open pit, two miles across and 2,000 feet deep, would be gouged into the ground. The billions of tons of mine waste would be dumped into man-made lakes created by flooding 10 square miles of land behind earthen dams more than 600 feet high. The site of these lakes is an active earthquake zone.
The environmental risks of this project are enormous, but equally important are the devastating repercussions the mine will have on the indigenous peoples of Bristol Bay, who have lived on these lands for generations and depend on the bay’s salmon for their survival. The practice of intentionally selecting communities of color for wastes disposal sites and polluting industrial facilities – essentially condemning them to contamination – is known as “environmental racism.” The United Church of Christ has historically been a champion for environmental justice across the nation and it is essential that we join with our native sisters and brothers in speaking out about the very real impact this project will have on their lives and communities.
What can we do?
Section 404C of the Clean Water Act authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), after public hearings and a science review process, to protect rivers and wetlands that are important for fish spawning and wildlife habitat.
On May 18, 2012, the EPA released its draft Watershed Assessment of Bristol Bay. This 339 page scientific report concluded that, even without a major accident or catastrophe, a mine the size of the Pebble deposit would eliminate, or block, up to 87 miles of salmon streams and remove 2300 acres of wetlands that are part of the salmon habitat.
Nine Bristol Bay tribes; the Bristol Bay Native Corporation; the Bristol Bay Native Association, a tribal consortium serving 31 federally recognized tribes in the region; the Alaska Independent Fishermen’s Association and Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association; and a growing list of nationally concerned individuals and associations like the National Council of Churches and 355 sports fishing and hunting organizations, have asked the EPA to protect Bristol Bay under the authority of Section 404C of the Clean Water Act.
Much of the information featured here comes from partners on the ground. For more information visit Save Bristol Bay and the Alaska Conservation Foundation.
Watch Frontline's documentary on Bristol Bay - Alaska Gold. It can be viewed for free online.