EPA Moves to Thwart Huge Alaskan Copper and Gold Mine

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 20: Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy addresses a breakfast event at the National Press Club September 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. McCarthy announced that the EPA is proposing regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions, which requires future coal burning power plants to decrease 40 percent of their emission. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Ben Geman
July 18, 2014, 7:08 a.m.

The En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency made clear Fri­day it doesn’t plan to al­low a huge cop­per and gold min­ing pro­ject in south­w­est Alaska’s Bris­tol Bay wa­ter­shed.

The agency, in a pro­posed Clean Wa­ter Act find­ing, said large-scale min­ing of what’s known as the Pebble de­pos­it could “res­ult in sig­ni­fic­ant and un­ac­cept­able ad­verse ef­fects on eco­lo­gic­ally im­port­ant streams, wet­lands, lakes, and ponds, and the fish­ery areas they sup­port.” Bris­tol Bay is home to the world’s largest sock­eye sal­mon run.

“The sci­ence is clear that min­ing the Pebble de­pos­it would cause ir­re­vers­ible dam­age to one of the world’s last in­tact sal­mon eco­sys­tems,” said Den­nis McLer­ran, who heads EPA’s Alaskan and Pa­cific North­w­est op­er­a­tions, in a state­ment.

EPA’s ac­tion is sure to in­flame GOP al­leg­a­tions of over­reach. EPA crit­ics say the agency should not “pree­mpt­ively” thwart North­ern Dyn­asty Min­er­als’ pro­ject. The de­velopers of the open-pit mine have not yet sub­mit­ted a form­al plan and ap­plic­a­tion.

But EPA’s draft find­ing Fri­day said there would be sub­stan­tial harm even from a mine that’s much smal­ler than what de­velopers, in fil­ings with se­cur­it­ies reg­u­lat­ors, have signaled they’re hop­ing to build.

“Based on mine pro­ponents’ pro­spect­us, EPA es­tim­ates the mine would re­quire ex­cav­a­tion of the largest open pit ever con­struc­ted in North Amer­ica and would cov­er nearly sev­en square miles at a max­im­um depth of over 3/4 of a mile,” EPA said in a sum­mary of its find­ings, not­ing for com­par­is­on that the Grand Canyon’s max­im­um depth is one mile. Mine waste would “fill a ma­jor foot­ball sta­di­um up to 3,900 times,” EPA said.

EPA is pro­pos­ing re­stric­tions on min­ing de­vel­op­ment that would pre­vent the loss of more than five miles of streams that sal­mon use or loss of 1,100 or more acres of wet­lands, lakes, and ponds con­nec­ted with those streams or their trib­u­tar­ies, among oth­er lim­its.

The Pebble Part­ner­ship, the group that’s seek­ing to de­vel­op the mine, in May sued EPA over what it con­tends have been il­leg­al steps to pree­mpt­ively block the pro­ject. Pebble Part­ner­ship CEO Tom Col­li­er, in a state­ment, said he was “out­raged” that EPA took new ac­tion Fri­day “when lit­ig­a­tion on their un­der­ly­ing au­thor­ity to do so is pending in fed­er­al court in Alaska.”

“We will con­tin­ue to fight this un­pre­ced­en­ted ac­tion by the agency, and are con­fid­ent we will pre­vail,” he said.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists cheered EPA’s ac­tion. “For 10 years, the pro­posed Pebble Mine has cast a cloud of un­cer­tainty on Bris­tol Bay. Today’s an­nounce­ment provides hope that we are near­ing the fin­ish line to pro­tect­ing the world’s most pro­lif­ic sal­mon fish­ery,” said Chris Wood, pres­id­ent and CEO of Trout Un­lim­ited, in a state­ment.

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