Updated: EPA releases draft Bristol Bay watershed assessment

The Environmental Protection Agency today released its draft scientific study of the Bristol Bay watershed.

The report – three sections at nearly 400 pages each – concludes there is “potential for certain activities associated with large-scale mining to have adverse impacts on the productivity and sustainability of the salmon fishery in the watershed.”

Potential impacts could include loss of habitat used for salmon spawning and rearing, the agency said in a written release announcing the draft assessment.

Key findings in EPA’s draft assessment include:

–  All five species of North American Pacific salmon are found in Bristol Bay. The Bristol Bay watershed supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. The Kvichak River produces more sockeye salmon than any other river in the world. The Nushagak River is the fourth largest producer of Chinook salmon in North America.

– Bristol Bay’s wild salmon fishery and other ecological resources provide at least 14,000 full and part-time jobs and is valued at about $480 million annually.

– The average annual run of sockeye salmon is about 37.5 million fish.

– Bristol Bay provides habitat for numerous animal species, including 35 fish species, more than 190 bird species and 40 animal species.

The EPA has the authority under the Clean Water Act to protect the nation’s waters and conduct scientific studies that enhance the agency’s and the public’s knowledge of water resources, according to a written release.

EPA said the assessment’s focus is scientific and technical, that the agency made no judgments about the use of its regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act and the draft study does not prejudge any future consideration of proposed mining activities.

The report assesses the Bristol Bay watershed’s natural resources and the associated economic benefits. The draft study does not assessment of any specific mining project, such as Pebble, but looks at potential environmental impacts associated with mining activities of a size and potential characteristics, taking into consideration the mineral deposits in the watershed, the requirements for mining development, and publicly available information about potential mining activity.

The draft assessment focused on the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds, which produce up to half of all Bristol Bay salmon and are open to mining development under Alaska law.

The EPA also reviewed the importance of Bristol Bay salmon in sustaining the traditional subsistence lifestyle of Alaska Native villages located within the watershed. The assessment includes detailed reports on Bristol Bay indigenous culture, wildlife and economics, as well as salmon and other fish.

The assessment now goes to a public comment period and to an independent peer review. The final assessment, scheduled for release in the fall, likely will be used by both federal and non-federal decision-makers to inform future decisions on large-scale mining in Bristol Bay.

EPA will take public comment on the draft assessment until July 23. The agency also has scheduled public meetings in Alaska in early June, starting with an Anchorage meeting June 6 (see a list of other scheduled meetings below). The EPA also will host webinars for people interested in learning more about the assessment.

For information on public meetings and how to submit comments and to see the public meeting schedule, click here. Dates have also been added to the PebbleWatch calendar.

Read the press release announcing the watershed assessment to the public here.

Upcoming public meetings

Anchorage: Monday, June 4

7 p.m., University of Alaska, Wendy Williamson Auditorium

Dillingham: Tuesday, June 5

11:30 a.m., Middle School Gymnasium

Newhalen: Wednesday, June 6

5 p.m., Newhalen Teen Center

Nondalton: Thursday, June 7

5 p.m., Nondalton Community Center

Note: Dates and times for additional meetings in Bristol Bay will be announced soon.