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EPA proposes strict limits on Pebble mine to protect salmon

Lisa Demer

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday said it intends to take extraordinary action to protect Bristol Bay’s world-class salmon runs and unparalleled natural habitat from destruction by the proposed Pebble mine. But the agency is stopping short of blocking the mine outright and instead is proposing caps on how many miles of streams and acres of wetlands could be lost.

The restrictions would prevent the mega-mine proposed by the Pebble Ltd. Partnership, an open pit for copper and gold extraction that EPA says would be nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon. Even a much smaller one wouldn’t be allowed under the proposal. But mine operators could scale back and design a less destructive mine, EPA said.

Pebble, notified of the proposal just before it was published early Friday on the Federal Register, called it “outrageous.” EPA’s work on Pebble already is the subject of a federal lawsuit, a watchdog agency review and harsh criticism from Republican political leaders. Just this week, a U.S. House committee approved a bill to keep EPA from blocking the mine.

While the mine developers were pleased EPA did not veto the project outright, Pebble disputed that EPA could impose any restrictions before completion of an environmental impact statement or submission of a detailed development plan.

But a range of opponents -- environmental groups and tribes, fishermen and jewelers -- all praised EPA and said its work was grounded in science and responsive to immense local opposition. The Bristol Bay watershed produces half the world’s wild sockeye salmon and brings almost $500 million a year directly to the economy, according to EPA.

“The tribes are ecstatic that EPA is moving forward in this process,” said Alannah Hurley, program director for the Dillingham-based United Tribes of Bristol Bay, which represents a dozen tribal governments. “We’ve been waiting for over a decade for some kind of certainty about the future of our region and our people.”

The proposed restrictions are significant, she said. A scaled-back project might be unrealistic financially, she said.

LIMITS ON THE MINE

Bristol Bay Native Corp. asked EPA to set limits on the project through performance standards, and that’s essentially what the federal agency has done, said Daniel Cheyette, the corporation’s associate general counsel.

It’s a fair approach, said Brian Kraft, who owns three lodges in the Bristol Bay region and says his email lit up Friday morning as news of the EPA proposal spread. “They haven't said flat out ‘no’ they can't do this project. They’ve just said here are the standards you have to adhere to.”

Pebble’s lawsuit challenges EPA’s authority to halt the mine even before operators apply for their major permit or submit detailed plans, a “sentence first – verdict afterward” approach, the suit contends, quoting from “Alice in Wonderland.”

But EPA decided on a more measured strategy, Dennis McLerran, administrator of EPA’s Seattle-based Region 10, told reporters Friday. “This is not a preemptive veto.” EPA has a hefty scientific report, a review by independent scientists and more than 1.1 million public comments about Pebble already in hand, the agency said.

The proposed limits are necessary “to protect the world’s greatest salmon fishery from what would most certainly be one of the largest open pit mine developments ever conceived of,” McLerran said. “The Bristol Bay watershed is an ecological gem boasting biological diversity and productivity unrivaled anywhere in North America.”

At issue is a Corps of Engineers permit that mine operators would need to dredge and fill in streams and wetlands.

In the document published Friday, EPA seeks to bar mine work within the Koktuli River and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds that would:

--Destroy more than five miles of salmon streams or 19 miles of tributaries without salmon.
--Fill in 1,100 or more acres of wetlands.
--Re-route streams to more than 20 percent of the daily flow.

That’s the environmental damage that would come from mining an average-sized copper deposit extracting a quarter-billion tons over 20 years, according to EPA’s study of the Bristol Bay watershed, completed in January.

And Pebble envisions mining much more, according to reports that the project owner, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The massive deposit of low-grade ore could produce 2 billion tons over 25 years and 6.5 billion tons over 78 years, according to the submitted plans. Left behind from the smallest mine proposed by Northern Dynasty would be enough waste rock and effluent to fill a professional football stadium more than 880 times, where the largest mine would do so more than 3,900 times, EPA said.

The open pit mine would cover an area up to 6.9 square miles and more than three-quarters of a mile deep. The mine pit, tailings impoundments and waste rock piles would cover an area larger than Manhattan, EPA says.

“It would be difficult to conceive a worse place to put an open-pit mine with 700-foot-tall earthen dams holding back its toxic tailings than in the seismically active Bristol Bay region,” said Chris Wood, president of the conservation group Trout Unlimited.

OFFICIALS LASH OUT

The proposed restrictions apply only to Pebble and won’t be used on other projects, EPA stressed.

But the Parnell administration, which has joined Pebble in suing EPA, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young doubted that.

“The EPA’s action affects more than just this potential project and this area of land,” Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash said. “Today’s action will undoubtedly negatively impact opportunities for investment and job creation not only in Alaska but around the nation.”

“The EPA is being disingenuous in saying that this decision is only going to impact mining in a particular area of Alaska,” Murkowski said. “This is a blueprint that will be used across the country to stop economic development.”

“If they get away with taking these actions in the Bristol Bay region, they can and will replay this strategy nationwide and stop projects in their tracks – before, during and after the permitting process,” Young contended.

Sen. Mark Begich, the lone Democrat in the congressional delegation, was more measured. He said Pebble is the “wrong mine in the wrong place” but wants to ensure the process won’t set precedent.

PEBBLE WANTS PARTNER

Tribal groups petitioned the EPA in 2010 to consider blocking the mine through an obscure and rarely used section of the Clean Water Act. But instead of a quick veto, EPA in 2011 began the study of a big mine’s impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed. EPA announced in February that it was moving to protect Bristol Bay, but Friday’s development provided the first details.

A smaller mine would need to be evaluated closely, McLerran said.

Pebble officials contend the EPA doesn’t even have authority to set limits on a mine at this stage.

“EPA’s attempt to preemptively impose conditions on future developments at Pebble, in the absence of completing an environmental impact statement, as is required of every major development project in the United States, is causing significant and even critical harm to our business interests and our abilities to fairly advance our project,” Tom Collier, Pebble’s chief executive, said in a written statement Friday.

The Pebble project is struggling financially and seeking an investor. In April, London-based mining company Rio Tinto pulled out of the partnership and gave away its stake. The move came after a major investor, the large global mining corporation Anglo American, departed in December. Northern Dynasty Minerals is now the sole owner of the Pebble prospect but is looking for a partner. Pebble doesn’t intend to seek permits until it gets a partner, said spokesman Mike Heatwole.

Some scientists on a panel convened by EPA to review its study of the impacts of a big mine said that study should not be used as sole basis for regulatory action, Collier said.

But EPA says the scientists also praised the study as “very high quality,” and the agency adds that it has even more information in hand.

“We’ve got a very big and solid record here that goes above and beyond what the peer reviewers looked at,” McLerran said.

The proposal is the second step in a process that began in February and will continue for months.

EPA will take public comments on the proposal until Sept. 19. A series of public hearings on the proposal will take place next month in Alaska, starting Aug. 12 at the Egan Center in Anchorage. The others are in the Bristol Bay region, including an Aug. 14 hearing in Dillingham.

After that, EPA could pull back the proposal or send it to Washington, D.C., for approval.