Posts Tagged ‘oil exploration in Bristol Bay’

Salmon Trumps Gold

Friday, October 25th, 2013
The world's largest run of sockeye salmon occurs in Bristol Bay (nbcnews.com)

The world’s largest run of sockeye salmon occurs in Bristol Bay (nbcnews.com)

Each year 30-40 million sockeye salmon, along with smaller numbers of chum, silver and king salmon, return to breed in the rivers and streams that empty into Bristol Bay, Alaska after several years growing in the North Pacific.

Bristol Bay, Alaska - 400 km long, 250 km wide at its mouth (pewenvironment.org)

Bristol Bay, Alaska – 400 km long, 250 km wide at its mouth (pewenvironment.org)

Bristol Bay, the easternmost extension of the Bering Sea on the north side of the Alaska Peninsula, is relatively shallow, with shoals, sandbars and strong winds, as well as tides that are funneled up to a remarkable 10 m by the time they reach the eastern end of the bay. Shipping is a challenge.

It is a region of salmon fishing, both commercial and sport, of canneries, and of hunting and tourism. It is also a region with very large reserves of gold and other tempting minerals.

Bristol Bay has a large watershed, including the large Lake Iliamna  where Pebble Mine would be located (fishermenforbristolbay.org)

Bristol Bay has a large watershed, including the large Lake Iliamna where Pebble Mine would be located (fishermenforbristolbay.org)

The possibility of mining the minerals at what is known as Pebble Mine has been the focus of an intense fight for a couple of decades. There are reasons to be concerned.

If mining occurred, it would last several decades and would accumulate 10 billion tons of mining waste that would somehow have to be stored ‘permanently’ in an area that is considered to be an earthquake zone. And of course such mining also uses and contaminates vast amount of fresh water.

It is hard to find anyone in the region who supports Pebble Mine. Almost a million people have signed a petition that opposes it.

Last May the EPA issued a draft assessment indicating the risk of contamination from the proposed mine would be great, and that the Clean Water Act could be invoked to protect the region. Still, two companies have wanted to start the permit process – Anglo American and Canadian Northern Dynasty Minerals.

Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator, appears to be sympathetic to protecting Bristol Bay, but says the EPA will follow the science (washingtonpost.com)

Gina McCarthy, EPA Administrator, appears to be sympathetic to protecting Bristol Bay, but says the EPA will follow the science (washingtonpost.com)

In mid September, Anglo American unexpectedly announced that the whole endeavor was too much of a risk, and pulled out. An encouraging development, but Canadian Northern Dynasty Minerals say they’ll continue on alone to seek permits.

Perhaps they won’t. A final draft of the EPA assessment is not due until the end of this year, but Congressional hearings are currently underway.

Even if the EPA succeeds in stopping the mining, other threats to Bristol Bay remain. Much of the Bay has been a target for oil and gas drilling, also for decades. Despite great opposition from local villages, Native Tribes, fishing organizations, conservation groups, and even the State of Alaska, the US Dept of Interior opened the Bay to oil and gas exploration when Reagan was president.

Areas of possible oil and gas exploration in Bristol Bay (businessinsider.com)

Areas of possible oil and gas exploration in Bristol Bay (businessinsider.com)

Congress added the Bay to the moratorium on oil exploration following the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, and in 1998 Clinton extended the protection from exploration to 2012. Not surprisingly, George W. Bush removed Bristol Bay from the moratorium in 2003 and then in 2007 lifted the further protection that Clinton had given it. In 2010, Obama once again removed the area from any leasing programs, protecting it through 2017. The US Republican Congress tried seven times to withdraw that protection during its 2012 session, and though it failed each time, it is clear that any decisions can easily be reversed.

Part of the salmon fishing fleet in Bristol Bay (fisherynation.com)

Part of the salmon fishing fleet in Bristol Bay (fisherynation.com)

Bristol Bay is wild, remote, diverse and productive, one of the richest marine ecosystems left on Earth. It can be protected, and its fisheries can be sustained. Or it can be wrecked by the usual suspects.

These are hardly rational times, and ‘saving’ a place is a process that may never end.

Constant vigilance is our only option.

Permanent protection will take unending effort (akmarine.org)

Permanent protection will take unending effort (akmarine.org)