Bristol Bay: The Impact of Potential Large-Scale Mining on Salmon and Wetlands

By Roberta Attanasio, IEAM Blog Editor

In a land of pristine rivers and uncontaminated wilderness, the indigenous people of Bristol Bay have shared bountiful catches of salmon for thousands of years. However, the Pebble Mine—something that has been defined as just an idea—could be changing their way of life. An assessment released last month by the EPA shows the extent of the potential impact that the development of the mine could have on indigenous people and their land.

Sockeye salmon

Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka). Photo by Watershed_Watch, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Bristol Bay villages are situated in watersheds that are home to one of the most magnificent wild salmon nurseries on our planet. All five Pacific species are vital to the economy of the region—they support both commercial and subsistence fishing. About 38 million sockeye salmon return to Bristol Bay every year, making it the largest run in the world.

Christine Woll, a fisheries ecologist, tells The Nature Conservancy “Seeing all of the life that supports itself from these five species of fish is always incredible. Whether it’s the commercial fishing boats setting their nets in the bay, the belugas swimming up the rivers, or the bears and eagles pouncing on their prey, there’s always something to see.”

And Op-Ed contributor Callan Chythlook-Sifsof explains in a New York Times editorial, “My indigenous heritage is Yupik/Inupiat Eskimo. I was raised in an environment centered on salmon. Fishing is what every family does. It is who we are. I spent my summers on the back deck of family fishing boats working multiple fisheries. The boats and fish camps are maintained by generations of families harvesting salmon not only for income, but also for food.”

It is reasonable to expect that large-scale mining in Bristol Bay will likely pose serious risks to the salmon and to indigenous people. However, a few years ago, the Pebble Partnership proposed to develop Pebble mine. Pebble is the largest underdeveloped deposit in the world of gold, copper and molybdenum and is located in the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers, two of the eight major rivers that feed Bristol Bay.

In 2010, several Alaskan Native tribes requested that the EPA use the Clean Water Act to protect rivers and wetlands in Bristol Bay from development of the proposed Pebble Mine. In response to this request, EPA carried out a comprehensive scientific assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed to understand how large-scale mining could potentially affect water quality and salmon ecosystems. A team of experts reviewed existing information, including peer-reviewed research published in scientific journals, state and federal agency reports, knowledge of agency staff, input from other experts, and knowledge from tribal Elders.

A draft assessment was then made available for public comment and independent scientific peer review in 2012. A revised draft was shared again for public comment and peer review in 2013.

The final assessment, “An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska,” was released on January 15, 2014. The official fact sheet reports that “large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses risks to salmon, wildlife and Native Alaska cultures.” However, as a scientific report, the assessment does not recommend policy or regulatory decisions.

Among other findings, the fact sheet also reveals that “Depending on the size of the mine, EPA estimates 24 to 94 miles of salmon-supporting streams and 1,300 to 5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds, and lakes would be destroyed. EPA estimates an additional 9 to 33 miles of salmon-supporting streams would experience altered streamflows likely to affect ecosystem structure and function.”

Bristol Bay watershed

Bristol Bay watershed. Photo by friendsofbristolbay, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

For now, the final assessment represents only a technical resource. The challenges of protecting Bristol Bay from large-scale mining still lie ahead.

16 thoughts on “Bristol Bay: The Impact of Potential Large-Scale Mining on Salmon and Wetlands

  1. Ray Kinney

    I have not read the assessment yet, but will do so. I’m working in Oregon coastal salmon streams that are very low in available calcium, which is a known risk for increased metal toxic effects. Anthropogenic acidification pressures here appear to be increasing the frequency and severity of pH and calcium carbonate dips during pH challenge events of heavy rains and snowmelt. These low calcium conditions may be dipping lower than in prehistoric conditions, which may be pushing stream organisms lower on their preference ranges for calcium and subsequent increased pressure for hypocalcemic pathologies. This paradigm would then reduce organism abilities and add to population declines. Regulatory agencies, including the EPA do not seem very knowlegable about these low calcium waters risks, with a distict reluctance to adequately look into this possibility for application within other environmental assessments such as this one in AK. I am very curious if any responsible agency water quality sampling and assessment has adequately incorporated
    alkalinity, hardness, DOC, pH, etc. to clarify how these waters in AK might have increased toxicology from low calcium compared to waters around mines in other regions.
    would have higher calcium availability and better buffering capability

    Reply
  2. Roberta Attanasio

    Thanks for your interesting points, Ray. They’re food for thought. I believe that in the Bristol Bay assessment the EPA covered the role of Ca by using the biotic ligand model to estimate the toxicity of Cu​.

    Reply
    1. Ray Kinney

      I believe that the BLM deal with dissolved metals exposures for only a part of the whole metal toxicity problem. I’m not sure how the BLM relates to metal colloid that can stay suspened for long distances to contact acidic gill and gut microenvironments for dissolution directly on sensitive tissue for increased dose. The colliod can be elemental particulate that does not even have to go into the dissolved phase (eg. resulting from ablation of metal), or it can be dissolved metal that then ligands with organics or with iron oxyhydroxide colloid, which can associate or dissassociate with fluctuations in pH as the water flows downstream past tributary influence pH. It is my understanding that the colloidal metals exposures are not at all well accounted for, yet may be very important to assess if an accurate environmental assessment is needed to guide BMPs and regulatory actions. We do not know very much about this level of complexity in the toxicologic picture, so we may sound like we know just what we are doing, however, the devil is in the detail and we are not very good at dicerning many of the details. The available exchangeable calcium carbonate levels can be crucial in how we characterize the risk to the aquatic biota… and most assessments fall far short of enough detail… in favor of just getting some kind of assessment down on paper, and that may not very closely translate to understanding the aquatic reality that the organisms face moment to moment.

      Reply
    2. Ray Kinney

      Dissolved Cu is a case in point. It is very toxic to apical sensory neouron cilia on fish, and can leave them with decreased abilities to sense their surroundings adequately. When a fish has some of its abilities reduced, it is less fit to survive. If these water-exposed cilia are damaged, are other water exposed cilia such as the cilia that drive the gut train of freshwater mussels also damaged? Very young mussels rely heavily on cilia to feed and if the young get damaged the population won’t hold up. If there are no mussels in those waters, there are still a lot of macroinvertebrates in those streams that rely on cilia.Very low doses of copper are known to have the cilia degenerative effects. How far downstream can this Cu affect the cilia of all of the biota? And, what happens when freshwater mussels decline in population, reducing the calcium sequestration in the stream? Is there enough calcium to support the growth of the young fish? Cu has additive and synergistic effects with other metals that are likely to pollute these waters flowing down from the mines. Lead and cadmium are calcium utilization inhibitors that can add greatly to the toxicity of waters that are going to get polluted, mixtures are understudied even more than single metal pollutants.

      Reply
      1. Roberta Attanasio

        Synergistic effects are probably underestimated in many systems, and especially in biological systems – what do you think are the most likely mine-derived metals that may have additive and/or synergistic effects with Cu?

        Reply
      2. Ray Kinney

        Lead, cadmium, mercury, and zinc are all potentially additive as toxicants, some of their effects can be synergistic. They all have neurotoxic effects potentials, as well as affecting other physiologic pathways. Lead, cadmium, and mercury are accumulative toxicants, with increased potential effects as they build up in organisms. Most of the other metals that could be contaminants (eg. nickel, tungsten, etc.). I am not as familiar with. Zinc can also have low level effects that are antagonistic to some of the toxic effects of the lead, and the cadmium, but if too much zinc is present it can become toxic enough that it increases the toxicology.
        When we mine these, they are more quickly exposed and in much larger quantities than if they slowly weather out of the earth through time, so exposures become elevated locally beyond what would have been more normal.

        Reply
        1. Roberta Attanasio

          Your concerns are very reasonable. I’m wondering whether or not you brought them up to the EPA when the drafts of the assessment where opened for public comments in 2012 and 2013. According to the latest EPA press release (02/28/2014), there will be more public hearings (see step 2) – however, it looks like these will be about the proposed prohibitions or restrictions on mining the Pebble deposit, so I’m not sure your concerns can be presented using this avenue.

          Reply
  3. Tylah Hankerson

    I don’t understand why putting a mine in Bristol Bay seemed like a good idea in the first place. Wetlands are an extremely important ecosystem. They are home to many species of fish, provide nurseries to many species of fish, and protect the coast during storms. They provide somewhat of a buffer so the shores don’t get destroyed by the powerful waves and high wind. Destruction of these wetlands would affect many people, not just those indigenous people. It seems that Bristol Bay is essential to the lives of many local people and fisheries who use this area to fish. The fishing industry is already suffering from overfishing and fishing areas being destroyed. I watched a movie last semester titled, “The End of the Line”. It was all about fisheries destroying the ecosystems and food chains by overfishing. They overfish an area until the fish are almost extinct in that location and move to the next location. Destruction of fishing areas also aid in fishermen overfishing. The fewer fishing areas, the more you will come back to and utilize the same area repeatedly. Many local fishermen are catching smaller and smaller catches as the years progress. Also, with so many fishing sites being destroyed, it is important to keep as many natural fishing sites as possible. Bristol Bay is producing a large number of wild salmon. This area is very valuable to the fishing industry. If given the choice, most people would prefer to eat wild fish instead of farm raised. By building a mine and taking away some of the waters and land, you are also taking away food from people and income from the people who sell the fish. Destruction of this area could hurt the fishing industries even more and drive them to do more drastic things in an attempt to catch fish. Even a small mine could have catastrophic effects on the local people and the fishing industries that get fish from the location. I wish companies would realize the effects of destroying natural habitats have on everyone. It won’t just affect the locals, it will affect everyone eventually.

    Reply
    1. Ray Kinney

      Perhaps more openminded exploration of the use of Precautionary Principle would be a next step for society to engage in?

      Reply
      1. Roberta Attanasio

        This would be the best possible next step, but I think it’s going to take sometime before our minds open up to the possible exploration of the precautionary principle. But, on the other hand, I think this is exactly what the EPA has been doing with the assessment for the Pebble mine…… Do you agree?

        Reply
        1. Ray Kinney

          Since we are taking a more philosophical angle now, I think that almost all EPA, NOAA, USGS, USFWS, etc. agency folk came out of college sincerely eager to pointedly investigate environmental degradative causation with a determination to better the science and the outcomes for environmental health. The political arms of each agency, out of necessity, must bow to the funding gods and godesses of the legislatures. The legislatures are fundamentally biased strongly toward short term minimal gains at the expense of longer term gains for the environment. Environmental monitoring effectiveness and assessment are key to the scientific method, and to long term fiscal responsibility, however, the essential nature of monitoring with scientific integrity is stymied by the legislative politic that does not recognize this essentiality for natural resource sustainability. Monitoring is essential for our desperate effort. Legislatures are charged with finding funding for that which is essential. To the degree that they do not get their work done, our prioritization processes and essential work becomes scientifically, ecologically, and fiscally irresponsible.
          Unfortunately, pointedly investigative aquatic environmental monitoring is now seen as being not only not essential, but as inherently politically subversive. If monitoring discovers any additional water quality problems to have to find more funding to fix, most legislators react by trying to restrict water quality responsible agencies from any additional monitoring that are needed for integrity of environmental assessment. Agencies fear that moneys they are curreently getting for the other good work they are able to do might get punitively cut back to bias agency investigatory intent. Not doing the essential monitoring misinforms funding prioritization and keeps essential information off of the table all together. Of course, we don’t have all of the funding we need to deal with all of what we find important needs for, but we must insist on being able to place all of our environmental concerns directly onto the priorizitation table for intellectual integrity in prioritization for funding and action as it comes available. Monitoring SAVES us money. If we don’t find our mistakes we are destined to continue making them and paying for them longer into the future. Prioritization must have better integrity. Agencies are so fearful, that they will not acknowledge the essential nature of monitoring that their field practitioners see as essential, opportunity to become more fiscally responsible is lost, those post college zeals are blunted, and the intent of the Clean Water Act for long term fiscal responsibility is lost.
          The Precautionary Principle is a means to strongly trend toward that fiscal responsibility, yet the social political/industrial antiinvestigatory paradgm for short term gains at any cost prevail. I’m amazed that the PP has gained some credibility in Europe. Monitoring saves money and is essential.

          Reply
          1. Roberta Attanasio

            The precautionary principle makes sense. It is part of the European culture. More importantly, it is detailed in Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (EU). “It aims at ensuring a higher level of environmental protection through preventative decision-taking in the case of risk. However, in practice, the scope of this principle is far wider and also covers consumer policy, European legislation concerning food and human, animal and plant health.”

            Reply
            1. Wayne Landis

              Very interesting discussion paper on the precautionary principal was just published by Bar-Yam, Read and Taleb (the Black Swan author) and can be found here (www.fooledbyrandomness.com/pp2‎). The article attempts to put the precautionary principal in the context of fragility and uses GMOs and nuclear energy as examples.

              Reply
  4. cns2392

    There are many concerns regarding this article, and I think the largest is that people are so focused on mining for profit that they forget we, as in humans, are ultimately the ones affected. We talk of ecosystems and food chains, but time and time again we neglect to see that we are at the top of those food chains. I like how Tylah brought into the discussion a modern movie that shed light of the problem of overfishing, but what about shedding light on the mining, great potential for contamination, and possible health risks we are ultimately posing on ourselves. Though not directly related, I think the movie “Erin Brockovich” shows similarities to the issues of Bristol Bay. “Erin Brockovich” rose awareness to the contamination issue of Chromium-6 and its contamination threats and health concerns. Bristol Bay is going through a similar issue, and like anything, we should look to the past for clues on a successful future. There are alternative ways to gaining the profit people want while still protecting the wildlife and health of individuals. It just takes a little bit more effort…

    Reply
  5. Olumba Obu

    This is like a Catch 22 to me. Historically mining helps to fulfill resources that financially stabilizes the economy, especially on a global scale. Coal is an important asset to the construction of fuel that helps run factories, automobiles, etc. Now if mining deceases many indigenous workers would be out of jobs. But as a result the salmon, which is a huge supporter of commercial fishing, will be saved. I do like how Pebble Partnership developed a probable conclusion for the problem. But how is it so certain to work? The United States depends so much on foreign sources of materials. How could money be obtained to even construct these Pebble mines?

    Reply

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