Members Call on EPA to Save Bristol Bay

Aug 1, 2013
Members Call on EPA to Save Bristol Bay

(Washington, DC)  -- In a Subcommittee on Oversight hearing today Members of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology discussed the importance of protecting Bristol Bay, Alaska. Home to more than half of the world’s sockeye salmon, Bristol Bay lies next to what could become the world’s largest open pit copper mine.  The Nushagak and Kvichak rivers flow into the unique and pristine Bristol Bay watershed and commercial fisherman harvest an estimated 30 million salmon each year from the region.  

In 2007, two foreign companies formed the Pebble Limited Partnership to develop what is known as the Pebble deposit believed to contain one of the world’s largest deposits of copper. Building a mine in the wetlands of Bristol Bay watershed presents difficult technical challenges and would endanger the commercial fishing industry and Native Alaskan tribes’ subsistence culture which has relied extensively on salmon for hundreds of years.  In 2010, nine local Alaskan tribes and commercial fisherman petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to engage in what is known as a Clean Water Act 404 (c) to protect the wetlands.  Instead of engaging in a pre-emptive 404 (c) process the EPA conducted a Draft Watershed Assessment which found that a proposed mine would destroy 90 miles of streams and 4,800 acres of wetlands in the region and put the fishery at risk.

One of the witnesses, Wayne Nastri, former regional administrator of EPA’s Region 9 from 2001-2009, said: “EPA, in its role as a risk manager along with its responsibilities under the Clean Water Act, now has the information and duty to fulfill the Congressional mandate to protect our nation’s waters.”  The EPA should finalize the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment (BBWA), “as soon as possible,” he said, “and should move forward with [the 404 (c) process] to protect Bristol Bay.”

Mr. Nastri said that position has wide-standing support not just in Bristol Bay, but throughout Alaska.  He testified that the EPA has received an incredible 841,411 comments on their draft report and that more than 76% supported EPA’s study process and/or requested EPA to take action under 404 (c). “Importantly, more than 94% of those commenting from the Bristol Bay region supported EPA’s watershed assessment and/or 404(c) action,” said Mr. Nastri.

Congressman Dan Maffei (D-NY), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Oversight, said, “There has never been a mine of this scale or of this type built in an area like this.  It’s never been done, and no one can guarantee there will be no leaks, no accidents, and no pollution.  Bristol Bay supports a clean water economy and we should protect it for generations to come.”

“The importance of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery cannot be overstated, and its protection is vital not just to Alaskans, but to fishing communities up and down the West Coast,” said Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici Suzanne Bonamici, OR, Ranking Member(D-OR), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Environment. “According to a recent report by the University of Alaska-Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research,” said Rep. Bonamici, “as many as 2,000 Oregon jobs are supported by the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. My constituents have made it clear to me that they are concerned about the impact the proposed mine would have on the ecosystem and on their livelihood. It is important that we get the science on this right.”

Ranking Member Maffei concluded that the EPA report makes the decision regarding the proposed Pebble Mine clear. “The draft assessment is solid science that demonstrates hard rock mining cannot coexist side by side with salmon without harm to the salmon, to the fishing and sportsman's economy, and to the native communities,” said Ranking Member Maffei.  “I think we have to be honest with ourselves about where such projects can work and where they simply do not make sense.”

Congressman Derek Kilmer (D-WA), a Member of the Science Committee, emphasized the detrimental impact the Pebble Mine could have on the Bristol Bay region and beyond. “Healthy fisheries create jobs, and the Bristol Bay Watershed supports over 14,000 jobs from Alaska to Maine, including at least 5,000 in Washington State.  I have seen the detrimental effects that a struggling salmon population can have on all stakeholders, including fisherman and our tribal community,” said Rep. Kilmer. “In Washington State, we can all agree that the viability of our fisheries, whether in Washington State or Alaska, are a key economic driver and a part of our cultural heritage.”