The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week released a long awaited technical report on the potential impacts to the world-class salmon fishery in Bristol Bay, Alaska of the proposed Pebble Mine project concluding that large-scale mining poses serious risks to salmon and Alaska Native cultures.
The assessment, compiled over three years by EPA at the request of Western Alaska area tribes, dealt a serious blow to a Canadian company’s ambitions to dig one of the world’s largest open-pit mines in the middle of the world’s most productive salmon fishery, The Washington Post reported.
Vancouver, B.C.-based Northern Dynasty Mining has not filed a permit application with state officials to construct the massive project seeking to extract copper and gold estimated to be worth $500 billion.
Northern Dynasty and its Congressional supporters criticized the report as biased, premature and bad for business, the Post reported. Commercial and sport fishing groups, scientists, and area residents and tribes hailed the assessment as a first step to protecting fish, wildlife and the multi-billion dollar economy that they sustain.
The report prepared by EPA’s Region X office comes at the same time the agency’s Region IX office has been sharply critical of Vancouver, B.C.-based Augusta Resource Corporation’s proposed Rosemont copper mine in a rare “sky island” mountain range southeast of Tucson, AZ.
EPA Region IX has repeatedly warned in letters to both the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the mining plan submitted by Augusta’s Rosemont Copper subsidiary should not be approved as proposed because of serious adverse impacts to area water supplies.
After completing a comprehensive and detailed analysis, EPA concluded that Rosemont’s proposals to mitigate the mine’s severe and permanent damage to area water supplies are “scientifically flawed” and “grossly inadequate,” and advised the Corps of Engineers in a letter last November, that the project “does not comply” with Clean Water Act guidelines.
Rosemont must obtain a Clean Water Act permit from the Corps before the mine can proceed, and EPA has veto authority over the permits because the agency established the guidelines under which the permits can be issued.
EPA’s Region X office notably included in its Pebble Mine assessment that “consistent with the recent record of similar mines operating in the United States, polluted water from the mine site could enter streams through uncollected leachate or runoff, in spite of modern mining practice (emphasis added).”
Augusta Resource has repeatedly claimed that Rosemont will use “21st Century” mining techniques that will protect the environment and meet all applicable state and federal laws.
Bristol Bay, meanwhile, supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, producing nearly 50 percent of the world’s wild sockeye salmon with runs averaging 37.5 million fish each year.
EPA estimated that up to 94 miles “of salmon-supporting streams and 1,300 to 5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds, and lakes” would be erased by the footprint of a mining pit, depending on its size.
“Over three years, EPA compiled the best, most current science on the Bristol Bay watershed to understand how large-scale mining could impact salmon and water in this unique area of unparalleled natural resources,” said Dennis McLerran, Regional Administrator for EPA Region 10.
“Our report concludes that large-scale mining poses risks to salmon and the tribal communities that have depended on them for thousands of years,” McLerran stated in a Jan. 15 press release.
The battle over the proposed Pebble Mine has been waged for years and extended beyond Alaska’s borders, with environmental activists like actor Robert Redford opposing development, the Christian Science Monitor reported. Multinational jewelers have said they won’t use minerals mined from the Alaska prospect, and pension fund managers from California and New York City last year asked London-based Rio Tinto, a shareholder of mine owner Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., to divest, a request Rio Tinto said it planned to consider.
Politico reports Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and David Vitter (R-LA) were both critical of EPA’s assessment. While the report doesn’t outright state it, Murkowski said, “the agency has strongly implied that this report will be a basis to preemptively veto economic opportunities in the region in the future.”
And Vitter said EPA is sending a “very scary signal” that it is “capable of and willing to kill a project before an application is even submitted.” Democratic Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, meanwhile, said he will reserve judgment on the issue until he has digested the report.