Fears that a massive mining operation proposed to be developed near Lake Clark National Park and Preserve could impact the water quality and fisheries of Bristol Bay have convinced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to gather baseline data on the watershed.
While that announcement does not include mention of any regulatory action aimed at the copper, gold, and molybdenum mine called "Pebble," it is expected to provide the EPA with data that could influence future decisions concerning the proposed mine.
“The Bristol Bay watershed is essential to the health, environment and economy of Alaska,” EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLerran said earlier this week in a press release. “Gathering data and getting public input now, before development occurs, just makes sense. Doing this we can be assured that our future decisions are grounded in the best science and information and in touch with the needs of these communities. We look forward to working with Alaskans to protect and preserve this valuable resource.”
Eyed to be developed just 14 miles beyond the preserve portion of Lake Clark's southwestern boundary, the vision of Pebble has spawned a land rush that since 2003 has seen some 1,000 square miles of state lands adjacent to the park staked with mining claims.
According to National Parks Conservation Association officials, development of those claims "is the single greatest threat to the integrity of the park’s resources, including the region’s abundant fish and wildlife and the rural lifestyles enjoyed by local subsistence users and community based commercial fishermen. Future mining prospects are anchored by an exceptionally large deposit of copper and gold, called the Pebble Mine. ... the mine is predicted to be a catalyst for industrialization in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, a move which could seriously degrade air and downstream water quality, fragment salmon and wildlife habitat, and diminish the backcountry wilderness experience that is central to the area’s tourism and sporting industries."
In their release, EPA officials said they would "conduct a scientific assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed to better understand how future large-scale development projects may affect water quality and Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery, an extraordinary salmon resource for the United States. EPA initiated this assessment in response to concerns from federally-recognized tribes and others who petitioned the agency in 2010 to assess any potential risks to the watershed."
In 2010, nine federally-recognized Bristol Bay tribes petitioned EPA to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay, the EPA release said. Their concerns focused on the potential Pebble Mine project. Two other tribes asked EPA to wait for mining projects to submit permit applications before taking action.
The EPA release went on to state that "Bristol Bay is an important source of wild Pacific salmon for commercial, recreational, and subsistence users. It produces hundreds of millions of dollars in annual fisheries revenues. The area may be the last major watershed in North America that produces historic numbers of wild salmon. Most of the Bristol Bay watershed is wildlife refuge or park where large development is restricted. EPA’s efforts will focus on those areas that are not protected".
EPA’s assessment is not limited to examining the effects of hard-rock mining projects, but will consider the effects of large-scale development in general, the agency said.
The assessment, which will focus primarily on the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds, will be informed by scientific peer review, tribal consultation, federal and state agency participation, as well as public and industry input. EPA will accept and consider public input during development of the watershed assessment and will continue to work closely with tribal governments, state and federal agencies as we undertake this analysis.