New EPA chief to visit Alaska over controversial mine proposal

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services

New Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy plans to visit the site of Alaska’s proposed Pebble Mine next week as she decides whether to block the massive project to protect one of the world’s last big runs of wild salmon.

It’s one of McCarthy’s first trips since her confirmation last month as EPA administrator. The trip underscores the growing national battle over what could be the largest open pit mine in North America.

The companies seeking to build the mine are waiting on final details but expect to host McCarthy at the mine site.

“Hopefully, she can see for herself what the project is all about,” said Pebble Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole.

He said the Pebble Partnership will talk to her about how the mine and the salmon can co-exist, as well as economic opportunities the mine would bring.

An EPA study released in April said the mine could wipe out nearly 100 miles of streams and 4,800 acres of wetlands in the Bristol Bay region. The area produces about half the world’s wild red salmon. The agency is finishing the report as it considers whether to use the Clean Water Act to block development of the mine.

“We believe her visit will confirm for her that the protection of Bristol Bay and its fisheries must remain a top priority for the agency,” said Jason Metrokin, president and CEO of the Bristol Bay Native Corp., which opposes the mine.

The mining proposal is among the most heated issues McCarthy faces as she takes over the EPA. Congressional Republicans slam the agency for wading into the fight. Democratic senators from Washington, California and Oregon say the mine threatens the seafood industry.

Several EPA representatives will join McCarthy on the trip, including Dennis McLerran, the Pacific Northwest regional administrator, according to an email that EPA officials sent to Alaska tribes this week.

The email said McCarthy plans to hold meetings in the Bristol Bay communities of Dillingham and Iliamna. The EPA did not respond to questions about the trip.

Iliamna Development Corp. CEO Lisa Reimers said meetings are scheduled for Tuesday. She said she welcomes the visit and urges the EPA not to veto the mine.

“Iliamna does not want anything to happen to our fish or our environment,” she said in an email. “But for the EPA to base its assessment on a hypothetical mine that could never be permitted in Alaska is not just unprofessional, it has the potential to have significant negative consequences for our village and our people who are in dire need of economic opportunity.”

Pebble developers have not completed plans for the mine. They say the EPA is rushing to judgment.

The EPA said its work is based on preliminary mine plans submitted to government agencies, including a 2011 report to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The agency said it launched the study at the request of Alaska tribes and others concerned about the salmon.

The Pebble Partnership says the region’s deposit is one of the largest of its kind in the world, with potential to produce 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum (used to make stainless steel) over three decades.

By Sean Cockerham
McClatchy Washington Bureau