The development of a large-scale copper mine in the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds of Bristol Bay, Alaska is being evaluated by the Federal government. As a follow up to a peer review and public input, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has published a revision of it Bristol Bay Assessment. The initial assessment document was released in May of 2012. It is unusual to see the EPA conduct an assessment of this scope prior to the submission of any permit application from a mine developer.
This revised assessment reflects changes made due to peer review and some 233,000 public comments generated in the agency’s first review period. These changes involved better explanations of copper mining best practices, descriptions of potential habitat mitigation measures, projections of water loss and quality, additional details on the effect of mining wastes and expanded information on risks posed by transportation services required for the project.
The assessment used a range of likely mine scenarios to gauge the impact of a large-scale mine on the Bristol Bay region. Authors of the publication see the inevitable loss of spawning and rearing habitat for salmon like fish due to a number of causes. Some of these impacts could be mitigated depending on the ultimate size of the mining project.
Risks to wildlife and habitat would come from these sources:
- Mine Footprint – Miles of streams and thousand of wetland acres would be lost due to development of the open-pit mine, tailings piles, waste rock piles.
- Water Quality – Any water that comes into contact with products of the mine like tailings and waste rock would leach copper and other heavy metals. Some of these leachates may not be collected by onsite wastewater treatment systems.
- Road Construction and Transportation – Construction and use of a road to the mine would destroy habitat, increase sedimentation of streams, cause hazardous material spills and potentially allow the introduction of invasive species.
- Accidents – A large-scale mine is a complex operation and industrial accidents are inevitable. Accidents could come from tailings dam failures, failures of wastewater treatment, road borne accidents, oil spills and wild fires.
A portion of the draft assessment abstract states, “Reductions in the populations of salmon would be expected from these habitat losses and toxic effects, but cannot be quantified. These losses would adversely affect the Alaska Native cultures and the wildlife of the region. The Nushagak River and Kvichak River watersheds contain multiple sites under consideration for large-scale mining. Potential risks of mining development on salmon and other fish populations are likely to increase as a result of the cumulative impacts of multiple mines.” The EPA notes that this assessment is under review and it does not yet reflect a policy of the agency.
More information is available at the Bristol Bay Assessment website. Public comment on the Bristol Bay Assessment is being solicited by the EPA and must be received by May 31, 2013. Comments on the assessment can be made at e-Government Regulations.gov. Select the Environmental Protection Agency and use the keyword EPA-HQ-ORD-2013-0189 for the docket identification.
Copyright 2013 by Alan Sorum