Help keep the world’s largest sockeye salmon run safe from mining: Protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay

Jul 15, 2022

Erin Keleske, Government Affairs Fellow 

The cool waters of southwest Alaska converge into Bristol Bay, where millions of Pacific salmon return annually to spawn on the rocky river beds of the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers. Much of the region is tundra or wetland and only accessible by plane, but that doesn’t mean the area is untouched wilderness. The Yup’ik, Alutiiq and Athabaskan communities have thrived in the Bristol Bay region for thousands of years. Indigenous leaders have protected these vital waterways for generations and now, the region is home to the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. But the fight isn’t over. Bristol Bay is still facing its greatest challenge yet: the proposed Pebble Mine project. 

The Threat of Pebble Mine

Beneath the bay lies one of the largest untapped mineral deposits in the world, with billions of dollars worth of low-grade gold, copper and other rare resources. The Pebble Limited Partnership first proposed the mine in 2002 as an open pit excavation extending over two miles wide and 2,000 feet deep.The Pebble Mine presents immense danger to Bristol Bay and all the ecosystems and people who rely on it, especially the Alaskan Indigenous tribes for whom the bay and its salmon are at the center of their cultural, spiritual and economic practices. National Geographic named Bristol Bay as one of only three well-managed fisheries in the world. A staggering 57% of all wild-caught sockeye salmon is harvested from the region, representing over 15 thousand jobs and $2.2 billion in annual economic value. Bristol Bay is the lifeblood of Alaska and a global treasure. 

If created, Pebble would be the largest mine in all of North America. Environmental impact analyses done by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers show the project has a high risk of polluting Bristol Bay. The mining process is expected to generate up to ten billion tons of toxic waste that would be stored behind large dams in perpetuity, in a region notorious for seismic activity. Even former Pebble CEO John Shively admits that the dam poses a serious threat to the salmon should something go wrong.

The infrastructure necessary to develop and operate a mega-mine like Pebble is staggering. A 83-mile private road system would fracture delicate ecosystems for caribou, moose and grizzly bears. Over 3,000 acres of wetland would be destroyed, making the coast more vulnerable to oncoming storms. A new deep-water port near Cook Inlet would disrupt the recovery of endangered beluga whales. A 230-megawatt power plant would be installed just upwind from Lake Clark National Park connected to a 188-mile gas pipeline, locking the region into future fossil fuel reliance. Even under the best circumstances, the mine would devastate local ecosystems. 

Indigenous Leaders Fight Back to Protect the Bay

Ever since the mine was first proposed, a coalition of Indigenous leaders and other community members, commercial and recreational fishers, environmentalists, business owners, and sportspeople have banded together to oppose it and the dangers it presents to their way of life. Over 71% of locals now see Pebble as a serious threat to fisheries in the upper Bristol Bay watershed. This diverse array of stakeholders continued to fight through Trump-era efforts to greenlight the mine. They helped millions of people around the country see the beauty of Bristol Bay and the importance of protecting it.

The beauty of the bay does not lie in untouched wilderness but in the ways the land has been nurtured and protected by Indigenous hands. Thanks to their stewardship, Bristol Bay is one of the last places on Earth that is just as majestic today as it was hundreds of years ago.

The potential profit of a 20-year mine cannot match the incalculable value of an infinitely renewable food supply, centuries of traditional use and one of the last natural wonders of the world. 

Say No to Pebble Mine

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a key federal permit for the mine in 2020, but the bay is not safe yet. The EPA has the power to permanently block the mine using a rarely-used authority under the Clean Water Act that allows it to stop projects that would do irreversible and devastating harm to ecosystems. The EPA must use this authority now.  

The proponents of Pebble Mine aren’t giving up, but neither are we. Join us in urging the EPA to block Pebble Mine and protect Bristol Bay once and for all by submitting your comment here by September 6!