The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is nixing, for now, a mining proposal that would replace the world’s biggest sockeye salmon spawning grounds with the world’s largest open pit mine, pending further study.
Alaska Native groups, environmentalists and fishermen are lauding the EPA's decision not to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue a permit for the mine, proposed by the Canadian company Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.
“Extensive scientific study has given us ample reason to believe that the Pebble Mine would likely have significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a statement on February 28. “It’s why EPA is taking this step forward in our effort to ensure protection for the world’s most productive salmon fishery from the risks it faces from what could be one of the largest open pit mines on earth. This process is not something the Agency does very often, but Bristol Bay is an extraordinary and unique resource.”
The move came after the agency released its environmental assessment and after 360 scientists signed an open letter urging the EPA to turn down the proposal.
At least 31 Alaska Native villages are located in the Bristol Bay watershed region as well, and many have opposed the project, making the EPA decision welcome.
“Bristol Bay Native Corporation appreciates that EPA will identify appropriate options to protect Bristol Bay from the risks Pebble poses,” said Jason Metrokin, executive director of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC), in a statement. “While BBNC supports responsible development, including mining, the science has shown that the proposed Pebble mine presents unacceptable risks to Bristol Bay salmon, people and existing economies. BBNC shareholders and area residents overwhelmingly agree. We will continue to focus on ending the threat of the proposed Pebble mine and on creating other appropriate economic opportunities and jobs.”
Nunamta Aulukestai, a consortium of Native Alaska groups and communities whose name means Caretakers of the Land, concurred.
“We are happy with the EPA’s decision to take this crucial step. I and more than 30 other Alaskan leaders just came back from Washington to urge the EPA to do so,” said the group’s director, Kimberly Williams, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Now we’re one big step closer to protecting our salmon, our resources and our people from the proposed Pebble mine.”
The EPA pointed out that the ecosystem in the Bristol Bay region produces about half the world’s wild sockeye salmon—annual runs average 37.5 million fish—a yield that is mostly due to the “exceptional water quality in streams and wetlands.” Besides the need to keep the wilderness unspoiled for its own sake, the ecosystem is an economic driver in and of itself, the EPA said, generating hundreds of millions of dollars and employing more than 14,000 people both full- and part-time.
“The region supports all five species of Pacific salmon found in North America: sockeye, coho, Chinook, chum, and pink,” the EPA said. “In addition, it is home to more than 20 other fish species, 190 bird species, and more than 40 terrestrial mammal species, including bears, moose, and caribou.”
Replacing all that with an open-pit copper and gold mine that would be a mile deep and 2.5 miles wide, the largest ever in North America, and requiring the construction of at least three earthen tailings dams up to 650 feet tall, would irreparably harm the ecosystem, the EPA found in its January assessment.
The EPA Regional Administrator for EPA Region 10, Dennis McLerran, has penned a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the State of Alaska and the Pebble Partnership invoking the Clean Water Act.
National Geographic photographer Michael Melford, who has spent much time in the region, lauded the decision.
“There is so much money in the ground that you can see why they don’t want to give up the fight,” he told the magazine’s website on Friday February 28. “I don’t oppose mining—I use computers with copper in them—this is just the wrong place for it.”
The mining company said the EPA has overstepped its bounds.
“The EPA’s actions today are an unprecedented federal action and reflect a major overreach onto an asset of the State of Alaska,” said Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership, a subsidiary of Northern Dynasty, in a statement. “There is a prescribed, science based process for evaluating projects such as Pebble and the EPA has initiated a step that turns this process on its head…. The steps taken by the EPA to date have gone well outside of its normal practice, have been biased throughout, and have been unduly influenced by environmental advocacy organizations.”