The greater sage grouse is an umbrella species, emblematic of the health of the sagebrush habitat it shares with more than 350 other kinds of wildlife, including world-class populations of mule deer, elk, pronghorn, and golden eagles.
Sage grouse once occupied nearly half a million square miles and numbered in the millions. Now, this iconic Western bird, with its flamboyant dance, occupies a little more than half of its historic range, and its numbers have declined to several hundred thousand.
This week, President Obama traveled to Bristol Bay, Alaska, where he was welcomed with broad smiles and loud cheers by the small community of Dillingham. Despite the rainy weather, the President went out on the beach with commercial and subsistence fishermen to experience the remarkable fishery. And, the salmon obliged.
After an epic year of more than 50 million wild salmon, a few salmon were still passing through. As local leaders explained the significant of the fishery and expressed deep appreciation for his past actions in protecting it, their message was clear. The job isn’t done.
In conjunction with our partners and allies, Earthworks is proud to accept the BENNY award today on behalf of the Bristol Bay campaign to protect the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery from destructive mining. The BENNY awards are issued each year by the Business Ethics Network for successful corporate campaigns to achieve social and environmental change. Read more here.
Over the last few years, Earthworks, Nunamta Aulukestai, Natural Resources Defense Council and other local, state and national allies have worked to convince two mining giants, Anglo American and Rio Tinto, that Bristol Bay is simply the wrong place for large-scale mining. With Anglo American and Rio Tinto’s divestment from the Pebble Project in 2013 and 2014, we are one step closer to lasting protection for this phenomenal ecosystem.
Now, we look to the Environmental Protection Agency to use its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to finalize the restrictions against mine waste disposal in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, which it proposed in July 2014. These restrictions will protect the rivers, streams and wetlands that provide vital spawning grounds for the salmon to reproduce, and ensure that the Bristol Bay salmon fishery will continue to supply more than 14,000 annual jobs, produce half of the world’s supply of wild sockeye, and sustain the Alaska Native communities who rely on the salmon as their primary source of food.
Every year, millions upon millions of wild salmon return to the headwaters of Bristol Bay, like no place else on earth. Next year, a surge of more than 53 million wild salmon are predicted to return! Let’s make this the year that Bristol Bay protections are complete.
On the two month anniversary of the Imperial Metals Mount Polley Mine tailings dam failure, I travelled with colleagues from Bristol Bay, Alaska to see the area first-hand. At the hospitality of the Northern Shuswap Fisheries Department, we travelled by boat across Quesnel Lake to see the mouth of Hazeltine Creek where the tailings spill emptied into the lake. Despite two months of cleanup, the mouth is still choked with massive trees that were carried downstream by the powerful force of the tailings breach, which transformed a small salmon stream into a broad corridor piled with mine waste.
Today, Judge Holland of the U.S. District Court tossed out the Pebble Limited Partnership’s lawsuit against the EPA. Pebble sought to stop the EPA from using its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to restrict mine waste dumping from the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed. Read the court decision here.
The judge ruled that the lawsuit was premature because the EPA hasn’t issued a final decision yet. The EPA initiated the 404(c) process after Alaska Native Tribes and commercial fishermen petitioned the agency in 2010 to step in to protect the Bristol Bay fishery, which is central to the culture and regional economy. The EPA has announced that it will make a final decision by February 2015. Earthworks submitted an amicus brief in support of the EPA, urging the Judge to dismiss the case. Read the press release here.
In the meantime, there is enormous local, state and national support for the EPA to issue a final decision and protect the Bristol Bay watershed from the Pebble Mine. The public comment period on the EPA’s plans for limiting mine waste disposal into the Bristol Bay watershed closed last week (Sept. 19th), with a flood of public comments supporting the EPA’s proposal.
Altogether, the EPA has received roughly 1.5 million comments on behalf of protecting the Bristol Bay fishery – demonstrating the overwhelming public support for protecting the largest wild salmon fishery on Earth.
This week’s devastating tailings dam failure at the Mount Polley copper mine in British Columbia released vast amounts of mine waste into streams, rivers and lakes in the headwaters of the Fraser River watershed. It will be some time before we know the full consequences of this mine failure, but it’s impossible not to draw comparisons with the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Both mines are large, open pit, copper porphyry mines at the headwaters of important salmon streams.
Ironically, the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP), the company behind the proposed Pebble Mine, has repeatedly pointed to the Fraser River as a watershed where mining and fish can coexist. Check out this video.
Even more so, Knight Piesold, the firm that provided designs for the tailings pond lifts at Mount Polley, also provided the designs for the tailings pond for the proposed Pebble Mine that PLP submitted to Alaska regulators.
Today, the EPA released its long-awaited plan for restricting mine waste disposal in Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed - a crucial step towards protecting the world's most proflific wild salmon fishery and the 14,000 hardworking fishermen who depend on it. Alaska Native Tribes and commercial fishermen petitioned the EPA to use its authority to protect the fishery in 2010.
"It's been a long time coming," said Luki Akelkok, chairman of Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of ten Native Tribes and corporations, in a press release today.
Today, I’m in London to thank the British mining giant, Rio Tinto, for its recent decision to pull out of the Pebble Mine.
In another major blow to what would be (if built) North America’s largest mine built on top of the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery, Rio Tinto announced last week it was divesting from the project and donating its shares to two Alaska charities. The company held 19.1% of Northern Dynasty - the sole owner of the Pebble Project.