SEATTLE – The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing protections for Alaska’s Bristol Bay that would restrict plans to develop a mine nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon in what the agency describes as “one of the world’s most valuable salmon fisheries.”
In a written announcement Friday morning, EPA officials proposed restricting “all discharge of dredged or fill material related to mining the Pebble deposit” if it would result in the loss of streams, wetlands, lakes and ponds or alter the flow of streams where salmon have been documented.
“Bristol Bay is an extraordinary ecosystem that supports an ancient fishing culture and economic powerhouse,” Dennis McLerran, regional administrator for the EPA who oversees Alaska, said in a written statement. “The science is clear that mining the Pebble deposit would cause irreversible damage to one of the world’s last intact salmon ecosystems.”
“Bristol Bay’s exceptional fisheries deserve exceptional protection,” he said. “We are doing this now because we’ve heard from concerned tribes, the fishing industry, Alaskans and many others who have lived and worked for more than a decade under the uncertainty posed by this potentially destructive mine.”
The Pebble deposit holds copper, gold and molybdenum ore that was valued at an estimated $300 billion a few years ago. It is the largest known undeveloped copper deposit in the world.
Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier said the company is “outraged” that the EPA announced its proposal while the issue is pending in court and will continue to fight the EPA’s action.
“We have not yet seen EPA’s proposal, so we will reserve further comments until we have had a chance to read and analyze it,” Collier said in a statement. “We are outraged, however, that the Agency decided to take this action when litigation on their underlying authority to do so is pending in Federal court in Alaska, and when their own Inspector General is currently in the process of reviewing the propriety of EPA’s actions.”
The agency plans public input and has scheduled hearings in August and will also take comments online.
Chris Wood, president of Trout Unlimited, called the EPA’s announcement “hugely significant,” noting that digging a mine the size of the one described in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission would require “industrializing a landscape that is today one of the most pristine places on Earth.”
“A cloud of uncertainty has hung over the Bristol Bay region for 10 years,” said Wood, whose sport-fishing organization is part of a coalition of sportsmen, commercial fishermen and Alaska natives seeking to halt the controversial mine.
“Now, we can all see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel,” Wood said.