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What Alaska's Pebble Mine fight means for Seattle

Salmon-rich Bristol Bay is a cornerstone of Washington's seafood industry. But many say a mine 20 years in the making could threaten all of it. 

An aerial view of braided wetlands and tundra that are typical of the Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska. Upper Talarik Creek, shown here, flows into Lake Iliamna and then the Kvichak River before emptying into Bristol Bay. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Envronmental Protection Agency)

Puget Sound’s stake in far-flung Bristol Bay might seem peculiar at face value: It would take a seaworthy Seattleite weeks to cross the 1,700 miles of ocean between the city and this remote part of Southwest Alaska. But when you recognize that the bay houses the largest undisturbed wild salmon fishery in the country, the relationship between it and Puget Sound becomes clear.

Over the last century there’s been a really strong connection between Washington state and Alaska, specifically Bristol Bay, because of seafood,” says Elizabeth Herendeen, marketplace manager of Alaskan nonprofit SalmonState, which supports sustainable seafood development. 

Dozens of major Washington seafood businesses operate in Bristol Bay — but more than that, Bristol Bay’s salmon run is a beacon of hope for our depleted fisheries.

“If you want to look to places where salmon are flourishing and salmon are supporting human economies — whether they're industrial scale commercial economies or whether they're subsistence economies — the place to go is Alaska,” says Dr. Daniel Schindler, a Bristol Bay-based professor with the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic Fisheries and Science. “Bristol Bay and its ecosystem are a jewel of the world.”

But the future of Bristol Bay’s salmon runs has been in question since the 1988 discovery of a gold, copper and molybdenum deposit above nearby Iliamna Lake in southwestern Alaska, now known as the Pebble West Site. Ever since, the efforts of mining operations to open the Pebble Mine have ebbed and flowed. During the Obama era, under the direction of Dennis McLerran, Environmental Protection Agency Region 10 (which includes Washington and Alaska) determined that large-scale mining at the center of the Bristol Bay watershed could cause unacceptable damage. 

Over the past four months, more than 94,000 comments were submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers after a recent draft environmental impact statement, a crucial part of the permitting process that was reinvigorated by mining consortium Pebble Limited Partnership after the ending of a lawsuit in 2017. The Army Corps had been investigating whether a mine that would yield 1.4 billion tons of material would endanger waterways draining into nearby Bristol Bay over the long term. The Corps proclaimed that it wouldn’t. 

"We received feedback from many agencies, stakeholders and private citizens during the public comment period that closed [last week]. In the coming months, we will review and consider all comments, including those from the EPA, to assist with our analysis,” Tom Findtner, the Corps' chief of public affairs in the Alaska District, writes in a statement to Crosscut. 

But the opposition asserts otherwise. Environmental advocates, fishing industry representatives and locals argue that the mine would remove and damage salmon habitat as tailings pollute the Nushagak and Kvichak river systems, which house Bristol Bay’s main salmon runs. Even Chris Hladick, the current leader of the EPA Region 10 office in Seattle, recently voiced concerns about the draft environmental impact statement

Some of the strongest voices against the mine come from Puget Sound. 

“I think people here have experienced the sort of death by a thousand cuts of the impact of development on salmon resources in Northern California through the Pacific Northwest, and most of our stocks are endangered,” says McLerran, a Washington native. “We’re spending actually billions of dollars to recover the stocks.”

McLerran’s office utilized available science and Clean Water Act provisions to halt the permitting process, determining in July 2014 that mining companies couldn’t deposit materials in the watershed without unacceptably harming the river and its inhabitants. The office sustained a lengthy lawsuit against mining consortium Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), but in 2017, under President Donald Trump, the two organizations settled. The EPA agreed to withhold publishing a "recommended determination" about the mine’s impacts on water (the third level of the four-level Clean Water Act review process, after "proposed determination") until an environmental impact statement was prepared. 

Just last month, the EPA general counsel directed EPA Region 10 to even consider withdrawing that key Obama-era proposed determination about the mine’s impacts on the environment. If reversed, the Pebble Mine could receive a permit by 2020

Meanwhile, multiple comment periods over the decades have each received more than a million public comments. “It’s hard for people to stay engaged in a regulatory process for that long ... [but] right now with the [Army Corps] facing a permit decision, it is coming to a head,” McLerran says. 

That concerns a host of businesses, researchers and environmentalists tied to Puget Sound. 

As many of the country’s West Coast fisheries suffer, Bristol Bay has consistently produced huge runs of all major commercial salmonid species, except steelhead. The sockeye fishery is especially valuable. 

“These fish have been harvested at really high rates for 120 years, and the habitat keeps pumping them out — there's probably more fish here than there ever has been,” says UW’s Schindler. This part of the summer is the height of the salmon run. “Almost 2 million fish swam into the river just yesterday.”

“There’s virtually nowhere else — certainly in America — where you’ve got a habitat that is as diverse and productive and undisturbed as the one in Bristol Bay,” McLerran confirms.

Schindler says Bristol Bay fisheries expect 45 million fish this year. The year 2018 saw an all-time record of 62.3 million fish

Schindler, who has been researching salmon in Bristol Bay with UW for about 25 years, explains why Bristol Bay is an ideal salmon spawning ground. “It's a heavily glaciated area that carved out lots of rivers and lakes; the rivers are relatively short and they discharge into a very productive ocean that's in the sweet spot of temperature conditions that salmon flourish under,” he says. “You look at where most salmon are produced globally, and it's western Alaska that’s really a mecca for salmon.”

“We learned after doing the science that this is truly one of the last best places [for salmon], and as climate change and all the other stressors from development that occur down here are happening, this watershed is one that remains productive,” McLerran says.

The salmon might spawn in Bristol Bay, but they produce millions of dollars in revenue and tens of thousands of jobs in Puget Sound. SalmonState's Herendeen has been working on salmon-related issues with the Pebble Mine since 2006. She also helps run an initiative called Businesses for Bristol Bay, started in 2017, “when the Pebble Mine threat really came back.” The 200-plus Businesses for Bristol Bay coalition counts 60 companies from Washington as members, 30 of them in Seattle, Herendeen says. 

The majority of Bristol Bay fishermen source boats, nets and other tools from businesses like Seattle-based Alaska Ship Supply. During the off-season, roughly 800 commercial fishing permit holders live in Washington state, and about 100 are in Seattle. “Bristol Bay is so remote, so a lot of this stuff needs to be shipped north,” Herendeen says.

In 2013, Herendeen says the Alaska commercial fishing industry created roughly 10,000 jobs and generated $600 million in labor earnings for Puget Sound businesses. She says that since Bristol Bay produces 50% of Alaska’s total salmon value and 40% of its volume, “it’s safe to say Bristol Bay is a substantial percentage of those contributions to the Puget Sound economy.”

Many sport fishing operations and manufacturers, like Emerald Water Anglers and Far Bank Enterprises, are based here but have business in Alaska. Seattle-based seafood processors with Bristol Bay operations — including Trident Seafoods, Ocean Beauty and Icicle Seafoods — are often the end of the supply chain. “It’s not just the financial transfer that happens between the two regions, but the salmon themselves actually are transported down to the Seattle area for reprocessing and distribution to markets all over the world,” Herendeen says. 

“We are intimately involved in the Pebble Mine issue because it impacts all of us and is a big travesty to nature,” says Dean Pugh, sales manager of Deep Sea Fisheries, a processing operation based in Everett with an office in Alaska. Each year, Deep Sea Fisheries purchases sockeye from commercial fishermen in Bristol Bay, and processes about 8 to 10 million pounds of the fish at a 500-person plant in Big Creek, Alaska. 

“I get absolutely ill every time I think about our elected officials justifying and trying to sanction that kind of an operation that will destroy nature and our run," Pugh says. "Even though they all say it won’t, and that they have safeguards, the safeguards will fail. Maybe not this year or in 10 or 20, but it will fail, period.” 

Some fish ultimately stay in Seattle. Local grocers such as PCC (the biggest consumer-owned co-op in the country) have supported Bristol Bay fisheries for some time. Renowned chefs like Renee Erickson, Kevin Davis and Tom Douglas prioritize sustainably caught foods in their restaurants — with Douglas going so far as to fund a documentary about Bristol Bay produced by Seattle-based moviemakers. Tom Douglas Seattle Kitchen is part of the Businesses for Bristol Bay coalition.

Douglas’ 15 restaurants usually serve Bristol Bay salmon only when they’re in season, but “we have been serving more and more of the Bristol Bay salmon [frozen] in the off season … because we want to get the word out,” he says. “More importantly, it gives [the locals] an opportunity to make a living. And if we don't eat wild to save wild, we are going to force them to choose mining.” 

“I don't think that an open-pit copper and gold mine, with tailing ponds ...  that are at risk for the rest of eternity, literally tens of thousands of years, are the right solution in such a desolate place,” Douglas says.

One of the biggest risks to Bristol Bay is acid mine drainage. This mixture of sulfuric acid and unusable heavy metals produced through mining can blanket rivers and destroy streambed habitat; high amounts are toxic to fish. There’s also the possibility of a blowout, which would wreck the waterways in one fell swoop. 

“The [Pebble Limited Partnership] attitude is, ‘We’ll go in, we'll extract the ore, we'll button it up, and we'll walk away and nothing will have changed,’” Schindler says. “The chemistry of this deposit says, with essentially 100% certainty, there will be acid mine drainage produced out of this site. In many cases, it may take 20 years to start generating acid mine drainage, but once it starts, it doesn't go away.” 

Mike Heatwole, vice president of public affairs at Pebble, maintains otherwise. 

“We have a fundamental principle that the mine must successfully operate without harming the fishery and water resources of Bristol Bay. This has been our core value since the inception of our work,” he says via email. "The [Army Corps] has done a thorough and transparent job." 

To Heatwole, many science-based assertions about the mine by its opponents gloss over its benefits to southwest Alaskan people. In addition to state revenues of more than $1 billion over the course of the mine’s 20-year lifespan, the benefits of increased energy infrastructure in the region and the global need for copper, Heatwole notes the possible economic impact of creating year-round jobs.

“The commercial fishing economy is important but it is highly seasonal and most who benefit do not live in Alaska,” he says.

Fishing advocates like Herendeen worry that even if the mine didn't injure salmon stocks, the simple presence of the mine could sour prospects for the fishery.

“Even if an environmental disaster like that did not happen, just the damage that could be done to the public’s perception of Bristol Bay salmon could be incredibly devastating for the seafood industry,” Herendeen says.

The mine’s prospects at this point seem very uncertain to McLerran. “On the one hand, you've got movement on the permitting side, which creates major anxiety on the part of the people that live, work and fish in Bristol Bay; but you’ve also got this track record of [mining companies] evaluating the prospect and walking away.” 

For him, the most concerning thing is the possibility that Pebble Limited Partnership would end up mining a larger area than proposed in its initial plans, setting a precedent for future mining in the region.

“What they put in front of the [Army Corps] is only the camel’s nose under the tent," he says. "It is very likely that if Pebble Mine is ever constructed and the infrastructure is there that other mines will be developed. Then what you'll have is a mining district in the heart of the watershed where the two most productive rivers are located, and it's largely unprotected.” 

But for Douglas and others, Bristol Bay is ”not just about people in Seattle.” 

“What this fishery is, is mighty rare anymore in our world,” Douglas says. “We have ruined most of them. And now we’re trying to ruin the last few left.” 

Correction: This article has been updated to more clearly reflect Herendeen's role within Businesses for Bristol Bay, and the group's relationship with SalmonState; and that the sockeye run expected for Bristol Bay in 2019 is 45 million total, not 45 million caught.

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What Alaska's Pebble Mine fight means for Seattle

About the Authors & Contributors

Hannah Weinberger

Hannah Weinberger is a reporter at Crosscut focused on science and the environment.