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EPA to Assess Bristol Bay’s Unprotected Areas

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Native Alaskans and others fighting to conserve Bristol Bay’s watershed were ebullient on Monday when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it would study the region’s unprotected areas to gauge the effects of large-scale development on water quality and salmon.

“The Bristol Bay watershed is essential to the health, environment and economy of Alaska,” said EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLerran in a press release from the agency. “Gathering data and getting public input now, before development occurs, just makes sense. Doing this we can be assured that our future decisions are grounded in the best science and information and in touch with the needs of these communities. We look forward to working with Alaskans to protect and preserve this valuable resource.”

The move comes in response to concerns from nine federally recognized tribes and other groups that petitioned the EPA in 2010 asking for the assessment under the auspices of the Clean Water Act. Their main concern is the Pebble Mine Project, which would create an open-pit mine that could go as deep as 1,700 feet and measure two miles in diameter, according to the conservation group Trout Unlimited.

Bristol Bay’s watershed, which contains nine major rivers, is home to one of the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon runs and is the cornerstone of a $450 million annual fishing industry, Trout Unlimited said.

The EPA emphasized that it is merely studying the 40,000-square mile wetland and that the February 7 announcement does not create any rulings.

“This action today does not represent any regulatory decision by the agency; instead it represents EPA’s proactive steps to better understand the watershed and gather important scientific information,” the EPA’s release stated. “This information gathered will inform any future guidelines or actions about how to protect the waters and promote sustainable development.”

Rather than limit investigation to the effects of mining, the EPA will “consider the effects of large-scale development in general,” the agency’s release said.

The assessment will focus on the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds and include scientific peer review, tribal consultation, federal and state agency participation, and input from the public and industry, the EPA said.