It All Starts with Science: Answering Questions about Mining in Bristol Bay, Alaska

Considering the scope of resources in Bristol Bay – a 37.5 million average annual run of sockeye salmon; $480 million in ecosystem-generated economic activity in 2009; 14,000 full- and part-time jobs from that activity; and 11 billion tons in potential copper and gold deposit – it is no wonder there was significant interest in an EPA science assessment to understand how wild salmon and water resources in the Bristol Bay watershed might be impacted by large-scale mining operations. The public comment periods generated 230,000 responses on the first draft of the assessment, and 890,000 on the second.

This week, after reviewing all those comments and formal peer review by 12 scientists with expertise in mine engineering, fisheries biology, aquatic biology, aquatic toxicology, hydrology, wildlife ecology, and Alaska Native cultures, EPA released its final report, “An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska.”

More than three years ago, several Bristol Bay Alaska Native tribes requested EPA take action under the Clean Water Act to protect the Bay and its fisheries from proposed large-scale mining. Other tribes and stakeholders who support development in the Bristol Bay Watershed requested EPA take no action until a permitting process begins.

The first step in responding to these requests was science. The Agency called upon its researchers to compile the best, most current science on Bristol Bay ecology and fisheries.

A team of researchers with expertise in salmon biology, anthropology, geochemistry, mining, and risk assessment examined the potential impacts of mining on salmon and other fish in two Bristol Bay watersheds, the Nushagak and Kvichak. The research team reviewed a wealth of information from peer-reviewed scientific journals, the Pebble Limited Partnership, state agencies, Agency experts, and tribal Elders. They drew information from more than 700 scientific reference documents.

EPA staff used this information to evaluate the potential impacts from possible large-scale mining operations to provide insight into the risks that such operations might pose to salmon fisheries and Alaska Native cultural practices. The final report released this week provides the details and conclusions from that work, concluding that large-scale mining does pose risks to salmon and tribal communities.

While the final report will surely provide stakeholders with a critical resource to turn to when faced with the responsibility of making decisions about the Bristol Bay watershed, it’s also important to note how the process behind the effort stands as an exemplary model of how our scientists support the Agency’s goal of protecting the nation’s water resources. Dedicated EPA staff gathered a wealth of data to provide the best available science to federal, state and local governments, tribes, citizens and other stakeholders discussing how best to address the challenges of mining and ecological protection in the Bristol Bay watershed. From Bristol Bay, Alaska, to Washington, DC, EPA efforts all start with science.

Lek Kadeli is the Acting Assistant Administrator in the U.S. EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He has over 29 years of management experience in both government and the private sector, with broad experience in leading organizational change and improvement, policy development, resource management, information management and technology. Mr. Kadeli graduated from George Mason University in 1983 with a B.A. in International Relations. In 1986, he earned an M.A. in National Security Studies from Georgetown University.

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