Where Mining Does not Belong: Bristol Bay, Alaska

Red SalmonThe Bristol Bay watershed, located in the remote wild lands of Southwest Alaska, supports the largest wild salmon runs in the world. It also is home to brown bears, bald eagles, beluga whales, and a wide variety of waterfowl. The area's pristine mountains, meadows, rivers, and lakes sustain a subsistence-based economy for Native Alaskans as well as world-class sport and commercial fishing. Yet this same area has become the focus of serious mineral exploration. A colossal gold and copper mine, now under review by the Obama administration, would jeopardize the bounty of the entire watershed.

The proposed “Pebble” mine and its supporting industrial operations could rank among the world's largest, one so massive that it would be visible from space. According to figures from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the complex would span 32 square miles of wilderness-quality land now managed by the state of Alaska—an area 50 percent larger than Manhattan. It is expected to have an open pit seven times deeper than the Washington Monument with structures as high as Hoover Dam to contain an estimated 7 billion to 10 billion tons of contaminated tailings.

The Clean Water Act compels the EPA to determine whether such an operation will have “unacceptable adverse effects” on water supplies, shellfish beds, fishery areas, wildlife, or recreational opportunities. The agency is evaluating the impact such a large-scale operation could have on wildlife, indigenous cultures, and the region's estimated $480 million a year in direct economic activity.

The Obama administration will soon determine whether mining operations of this scale can occur in the heart of Bristol Bay. The Pew Environment Group urges the administration to protect the people, salmon, and wildlife of one of America's most valuable watersheds.

See Pew's work to protect the Grand Canyon from mining.