JUNEAU -- The state of Alaska is fighting a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study that looks at the potential impacts of mining on the world-class Bristol Bay salmon fishery.
The watershed assessment is a direct response to concerns that have been raised about the Pebble Mine project, a large copper-and-gold prospect near the headwaters of Bristol Bay. But Alaska's attorney general, in letters to EPA regional administrator Dennis McLerran, has asked EPA to stop its work, claiming, among other things, that the agency's actions are premature and an overreach.
Michael Geraghty, in a March 9 letter, said EPA has shared "little information about its purported legal authority" to conduct the study, and he raised concerns that it could lead to the agency vetoing mining activity. If EPA were to invoke a section of the Clean Water Act that allows it to restrict or bar use of certain waters for dredge or fill materials, that could have the potential to "extinguish" the state's mineral rights and leases held by others, he said. Geraghty noted that the assessment encompasses about 15 million acres of largely state-owned land, an area that he says is comparable to the size of West Virginia.
He said the state would explore "all available legal options" should EPA move in that direction.
McLerran responded nearly a month later, saying EPA is acting within its authority and that the assessment will provide "important data that will help inform future decision-making with respect to Bristol Bay..." Geraghty, in a letter dated April 17, said McLerran's reply reflected little consideration for the "significant issues" the state raised.
The Pebble project has been the subject of a heated public relations war for years. Supporters say it would bring much-needed jobs to economically-depressed rural Alaska but opponents fear it could fundamentally change the landscape and disrupt if not destroy a way of life.
The Pebble Limited Partnership, the group behind the project, on its website calls it of the large deposits of its kind in the world, with the potential of producing 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum over decades.
Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole said the group must finish a development plan before filing for permits. He said the group agrees with Geraghty's assessment that the EPA's study is premature.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, also worries that any action taken by EPA, in response to the study, could impact other development in the region. EPA's study is intended to look at large-scale development in general, though the agency said it would study information related to Pebble since that's the most likely large-scale development in the near-term.
EPA, on its website, said it initiated the assessment in response to petitions from nine federally recognized tribes and others who urged action to protect Bristol Bay salmon. The agency also heard from others, including other tribes, who support development in the region and asked that EPA take no action until the permitting process begins.
EPA said the information gleaned as part of the assessment will inform its response to the requests.
Public meetings will be held after EPA releases its draft assessment, and a peer review panel will be convened to look over the draft and comment on it.