Environmental groups say Pebble could threaten the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale

An aerial view of a beluga and a baby beluga in gray water
A Cook Inlet beluga whale mother and neonatal calf swim together. (Public domain photo by Hollis Europe and Jacob Barbaro/NOAA Fisheries)

Beluga whales in the Cook Inlet are nearing extinction as an accumulation of threats endanger the whales’ habitat. Now conservationists in the region are raising concerns about adding yet another stressor to a disappearing whale population — the proposed Pebble Mine.

A new documentary provides a brief look at how the mine would operate in the area and what that could do to the belugas.

“Is it possible that the Pebble Project activities could lead to these threats against Cook Inlet belugas? Yes,” said Mandy Migura, a wildlife biologist speaking at a panel hosted by the Environmental Investigation Agency last month.

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The environmental group recently released “White Whale, Gold Mine,” a short documentary about how the mine could affect belugas.

All 3,013 nautical miles designated as critical beluga whale habitat. (Courtesy NOAA Fisheries)

NOAA Fisheries has ruled that Cook Inlet’s beluga whales are endangered. The belugas are unique to the region because the Aleutian chain acts as a barrier, so the whales never travel in or out.

In 2011, NOAA designated 3,000 nautical miles of the Cook Inlet as critical beluga whale habitat. Migura says that a portion of Pebble’s developments cut through that area.

“Part of that includes the western shoreline of lower Cook Inlet,” Migura says. “And they have said that it includes two nautical miles seaward of the high-water mark.”

The Pebble Limited Partnership is planning to build a port on the shore of Diamond Point in the Iliamna Bay, with a dredged navigation channel. It would also run a 74-mile natural gas pipeline and fiber optic cable across the water basin.

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The Marine Mammal Commission is an independent government conservation agency. It estimated that 1,300 belugas were in Cook Inlet in 1972. Now there are fewer than 269 whales left. The population is decreasing at a rate of 2.3% per year.

NOAA’s recovery plan, the Critical Habitat for the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale, lists 10 potential threats to the population, which the plan classifies as high, medium and low concerns. The top concerns are catastrophic events like oil and gas spills, noise from on and offshore activities and the combined effects of all individual threats.

Bob Shavelson is the advocacy director for Cook Inlet Keeper, a non-profit focused on protecting the watershed. He said a combination of threats could be behind the population’s decline.

“So when you look at all those things: the oil and gas dumping, the seismic testing, the regular spills from pipelines and leaks — the beluga whale faces a myriad of threats,” Schavelson said. “We’ve gotta do a better job of looking at these things. And the Pebble Mine is one more risk, one more stress that we don’t need for this declining population.”

According to the state Division of Water, there are over 100 facilities that have permits to discharge wastewater into the Cook Inlet area. The region’s primary oil company, Hilcorp, uses mixing zones authorized by the state for its nine offshore platforms. Those zones are meant to dilute oil and gas waste when it’s released. There are 17 oil and gas platforms in the basin.

Diamond Point port in Cottonwood Bay and Iliamna Bay, adjacent to the Iniskin Peninsula. The purple line running across Cook Inlet represents the concentrate pipeline and fiber optic cable.
(Pebble Project EIS)

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has said that Cook Inlet’s currents are strong enough to meet federal water standards. But Hilcorp has a troubled history of waste discharge in the watershed. Three years ago, the company had to halt production at two platforms due to an oil spill and gas leaks. 

The U.S Army Corps of Engineers’ final environmental review of the Pebble Mine concludes that the impacts of the project in critical beluga habitat would be minor but permanent. 

In an email, Pebble spokesperson Mike Heatwole said, “as our port will operate in Cook Inlet, we will utilize best management practices to ensure no negative impacts to Cook Inlet belugas.”

Pebble says it will work with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and other relevant agencies to finalize its mitigation efforts.

But Mandy Migura, the wildlife biologist, is worried that the mine may be a tipping point for the whales’ survival.

“It kind of does beg the question at one point are we getting to the threshold,” she said. “Right now there’s not a whole lot going on in the lower Cook Inlet. If that area is able to be somewhat of a refuge of the other threats, we’re now adding stressors into an area that had relatively low stressors.”

Migura said that if the population is depleted, those whales will be lost forever.

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