EPA seeks to restrict Pebble Mine project to protect salmon habitat

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Friday called for restricting the development of the proposed Pebble Mine near Bristol Bay, Alaska, to protect salmon in nearby waters.

The EPA said its analysis found that the mine is likely to hurt the waterways and wetlands that feed into Bristol Bay, the world’s largest salmon habitat.

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“The science is clear that mining the Pebble deposit would cause irreversible damage to one of the world’s last intact salmon ecosystems,” Dennis McLerran, the EPA’s regional administrator for the area including Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, said in a statement.

Backers of the copper and gold mine project, proposed by Northern Dynasty Minerals, say it would be the largest of its kind in the world. The EPA said the mine would be nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon, and its waste materials would fill 3,900 football stadiums.

“Bristol Bay’s exceptional fisheries deserve exceptional protection,” said McLerran.

“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 mine requires a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers in order to dispose of the waste materials, which could affect waterways. The EPA can veto that permit.

Under the proposal unveiled Friday, Pebble would be prohibited from any activities that would cause the loss of five miles of streams with salmon; 19 miles of streams without salmon; 1,100 acres of wetlands, ponds and lakes; or alter streamflows.

Tom Collier, the project’s chief executive officer, said the EPA did not notify his company of its proposed restrictions, which he learned about through news reports.

Collier said he is “outraged” that the EPA took this action, especially while investigations into the agency's handling of the situation are ongoing, as well as a lawsuit the company has filed. Furthermore, he said, Pebble hasn’t even filed a plan for the mine.

“The bottom line is that there is no environmental harm whatsoever that is occurring or that EPA is preventing by taking this action when all these substantial questions are up there,” he said. “I don’t know what their motive is for doing so, but it certainly isn’t protecting the environment.”

Collier accused the EPA of creating a hypothetical mine for its analysis.

“And frankly, it created one that I believe intentionally would have a significant impact, and then they proposed to veto that mine because of the impact that they designed into the plan,” he said.

“We will fight this,” Coller said. “EPA doesn’t have the authority to do this.”

The EPA’s involvement in the Pebble Mine project has been controversial, leading to a lawsuit by Pebble, an internal watchdog review of the matter and a congressional investigation.

The mine’s backers and their Republican allies have charged the EPA with making a “power grab” and alleged that officials decided to block the permit before the agency conducted any studies.

The EPA was also criticized for exercising authority over the project even before Pebble’s backers applied for a permit. Officials have used public information and investor filings to determine the extent of the proposed mine and its potential impacts.

The fight between the EPA and Pebble has also inspired House Republicans to propose a bill that would prohibit the agency from restricting a dredge or fill permit before an application has been filed. The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed the bill earlier this week.

—This story was updated at 10:29 a.m.