Protecting Bristol Bay: A Lesson from Nicaragua

In 2001, the Pebble Mine Project was introduced by Canadian mining company Northern Dynasty Minerals, Ltd. (NDM). The proposed copper/gold/molybdenum open-pit mine would be located in the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, which is home to the world’s most productive sockeye salmon run.

Location of the proposed Pebble Mine with respect to Bristol Bay. (source: NDM Pebble Project Website)

Between 2014 and 2017, NDM and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) went back and forth regarding a potential veto of the Pebble Mine Project. In 2017, NDM and the EPA reached a settlement and, since then, NDM has worked toward getting the necessary permits for Pebble Mine, one of which involves a comprehensive study of potential environmental impacts. On February 20, 2019, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a draft Environmental Impacts Statement (dEIS).

The dEIS analyses conclude that the mine does not pose a large threat to the Bristol Bay ecosystem. However, researchers are concerned about the science presented in the dEIS. Notably, the analyses cover only the 20-year life span of the mine while ecosystem damages could last hundreds of years, long-term risks due to climate change are hardly mentioned, and environmental stressors are assumed to occur independently of each other when, in fact, they are often synergistic.

The Pebble Mine Project is not the first threat seen by the freshwater world—just six years ago, the freshwater of Lake Nicaragua was threatened by an attempt to build an alternative to the Panama Canal.

Location of the proposed Nicaragua canal with respect to Lake Nicaragua. (source: Smithsonian Magazine)

In 2013, the Nicaraguan government sanctioned the construction of an interoceanic canal to be carried out by Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Corporation. Like the dEIS of the Pebble Mine Project, the proposed Nicaragua canal required an environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) before construction. In November 2015, the Nicaraguan government granted the environmental permit after receiving the ESIA from Environmental Resources Management, an international consulting company.

However, the Nicaraguan Academy of Sciences stepped in, facilitating an international workshop where researchers came together to evaluate the ESIA. The experts brought to light several issues regarding the science within the ESIA, focusing on five main areas: water and sediments, biodiversity, natural hazards and risks, social and economic implications, and international standards.

Mike Brett, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington whose research focuses on biological limnology, was among the workshop participants. He sees many parallels between the Nicaragua canal project and the Pebble Mine project, especially the potential negative impacts on the two freshwater environments: Lake Nicaragua in Nicaragua and the headwaters of Bristol Bay in Alaska.

“One of the main parallels I see is the impact that each of these projects would have on the water quality in the area. In Nicaragua, about a third of the canal was set to go through Lake Nicaragua. The canal would have to be about 20 meters deep, which is deeper than Lake Nicaragua by about 10 meters,” says Brett. “This would require a large trench to be dug, and the excavation of the aquatic sediments would be the largest ever done. Those sediments need to be placed somewhere, and they would end up back in the lake, messing with water turbidity and the natural ecosystems.

“In Bristol Bay, we’d see a change in water quality with a slightly different cause: chemical reactions between the water and some of the minerals being mined. This wouldn’t be an immediate effect, rather it would occur over the next hundred years. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore it.”

“Another thing that’s very similar between the two is the issue with indigenous rights,” says Brett. “This was a big issue with the Nicaragua Canal because it was going to cut through some areas that were set aside for indigenous communities.  It’s also definitely an issue seen with Pebble Mine. The coastal tribes in Alaska are fighting against the mine because their ways of life depend on Bristol Bay salmon.”

In addition, supporters of these projects tout the purported economic benefits to the regions, but, in reality, foreign companies would profit.

The parallels are stark and concerning, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. By banding together to review the science and make their voices heard, Brett and his colleagues were able to preserve a valuable resource for Nicaragua. The final evaluation by the workshop participants was widely publicized, and when combined with a Chinese stock market crash in 2015-16, it led to the abandonment of the Nicaragua canal project in 2017.

While no workshop is currently being assembled to evaluate the dEIS for the Pebble Mine Project, the people of the freshwater world can still make a difference. The dEIS is open for public comment until June 29th, 2019.  Public comments rooted in science and fact will help drive home that Bristol Bay is no place for a mine. The deadline is fast-approaching, but for the sake of Bristol Bay, let’s make our voices heard.

To submit a public comment, go to

3 thoughts on “Protecting Bristol Bay: A Lesson from Nicaragua

  1. Thanks for sharing! I was unaware. I don’t have any scientific expertise to contribute, but I’m grateful you’re spreading the word!

  2. Thanks for sharing! I was unaware. I don’t have any scientific expertise to contribute, but I’m grateful you’re spreading the word!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s