EPA deals blow to Alaska mine project

“Indirect effects of stream and wetland losses would include reductions in the quality of downstream habitat for coho salmon, sockeye salmon, Chinook salmon, rainbow trout, and Dolly Varden trout. These indirect effects cannot be quantified, but likely would diminish fish production downstream of the mine site,” the EPA said in its summary of the report.

If it gets developed, the southwestern Alaska copper and gold mine would be one of the world's largest. The mine is controversial in both in Washington, D.C., and Alaska, where it pits supporters of the state’s vast mineral resources against conservationists and an established commercial fishing industry.

The draft assessment now enters a public comment period that ends May 31. The EPA will review those comments before it finalizes the study, which will be used to inform the agency on whether to issue a permit needed to construct the mine.

The EPA's findings are a blow to industry groups and Republicans that have chastised the agency's process regarding that permit.

Republicans — including Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) — and industry groups have said the EPA is overstepping its authority by conducting environmental reviews before mine builders Anglo American and Northern Dynasty have submitted a formal blueprint.

The builders, who teamed up as the Pebble Partnership, said Friday that EPA "has not changed its deeply flawed approach" for the review.

They, along with industry groups, worry the EPA’s evaluation means it may render a “preemptive” veto of the required permit based on hypothetical parameters for the mine. A preemptive veto, they say, could cool investment near waterways.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a Friday statement, "Attempts to prejudge any mining project before the full details of that proposal are submitted to the EPA for review is unacceptable. The permitting process exists for a reason and a federal agency can no more ignore the established process than can an applicant."

Pebble Mine’s opponents — which include commercial fishermen, native tribes and environmentalists — say the EPA has plenty of information to conduct a valid environmental assessment.

Pebble Partnership estimates its proposed mine would yield 80.6 billion tons of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum, which is used in alloys.

Opponents say a mine of that size would conflict with Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon population, which accounts for a little less than half of the world’s total.

The EPA affirmed that in its draft assessment, saying the mine would inhibit salmon reproduction and negatively impact salmon habitat.

Bob Waldrop, executive director of the Bristol Bay Seafood Development Association, praised the EPA’s findings. He said blocking Pebble Mine would help preserve jobs for 14,000 commercial fishermen.

“Once again, EPA’s findings make it clear that delay is not an option for protecting the Bristol Bay salmon economy. We hope the EPA quickly finalizes the assessment so we can get back to growing Bristol Bay’s world-class sustainable fishery,” Waldrop said in a Friday statement.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) cautiously weighed in on the revised draft in a Friday statement.

“While I remain opposed to a pre-emptive veto of this or any other project, an open, public process that answers Alaskans’ questions and puts better science on the table is a good thing. I look forward to reviewing this assessment and hope it answers questions about whether this project can meet the high hurdle of developing a large-scale mine while protecting our renewable resources,” he said.

— This story was last updated at 4:18 p.m.