Protect the Bristol Bay fishery

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has started a process that could block the world’s largest open-pit copper mine ever proposed and protect the Pacific Ocean’s most productive source of wild salmon.

A rarely used section of the Clean Water Act allows the EPA to prohibit or restrict activities that deposit fill material into wetlands or waterways, if such activities harm fisheries. The agency has more than sufficient cause to intervene in a proposed mining operation in southwest Alaska.

Almost 50 percent of the world’s sockeye salmon — runs averaging 37 million fish a year — are spawned in Bristol Bay watersheds, which is home to 31 Alaskan native villages. More than 15 million salmon were caught there last summer by tribal, sport and commercial fishermen, including many from Washington state.

A Vancouver, B.C.-based mining company, called Northern Dynasty Minerals, wants to develop the gold and copper Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay’s headwaters. At 1 mile deep and more than 2.5 miles wide, it would be the largest open pit mine ever constructed in North America.

While the mine would cover 7 square miles, it would deposit dredged and fill material over a 19-square-mile area. Holding back that material would require three or more earthen dams some 700 feet high and stretching over 9 miles.

Quite rightly, tribes, environmental groups, tourism businesses and all sectors of the fishing industry have opposed Pebble Mine. Rep. Denny Heck and other members of both the Washington and Oregon congressional delegation have joined the opposition.

The EPA’s decision to invoke Section 404 of the Clean Water Act follows its release in January of a comprehensive study of the potential negative impacts from developing the mine.

The EPA was right to act. As EPA Gina McCarthy said, “This process is not something the agency does very often, but Bristol Bay is an extraordinary and unique resource.”

Blocking or severely restricting mining activity will ensure survival of the five species of Pacific salmon that thrive in the region along with 20 other fish species, 190 types of birds and more than 40 different terrestrial mammals. The EPA study says the area’s exceptional water quality and prolific salmon runs help to support the large wildlife population.

The Bristol Bay fishery must be protected forever. We expect the agency’s yearlong review will arrive at the same conclusion.