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Who has authority to assess Pebble mine risks: Alaska or EPA?

Margaret BaumanThe Cordova Times
A driller works on pulling core samples from the eastern Pebble deposit.
Eric Adams photo
A view of the Pebble deposit from a bluff nearby, where geologists and helicopters take off and land.
Eric Adams photo
A helicopter lands at an eastern deposit core-drilling site.
Eric Adams photo
A bird's eye view of the Pebble project and mile-and-a-half-wide deposit site. Notice the stranded water, which geologists called "off-channel fish habitat."
Eric Adams photo
This drill site, one of two in the eastern area of the deposit, was actively removing core samples from deep beneath the Pebble deposit. According to Pebble geologists, copper ore has been discovered more than a mile beneath the deposit.
Eric Adams photo
A view of the Pebble deposit from a nearby bluff, with Frying Pan Lake in the distance and Lake Iliamna beyond, about 25 miles away.
Eric Adams photo
Jane Whitsett is the environmental studies manager for Pebble Partnership and oversees various scientific aspects of study under way at the Pebble deposit, including hydrology and fish studies.
Eric Adams photo
Frying Pan Lake is the closest natural body of water to the Pebble deposit. It's located about a mile from an area currently being drilled for core samples.
Eric Adams photo
A Pebble geologist shows a core sample from Pebble deposit drilling. The sample shows offers a good example of what some of the ore in the eastern deposit looks like.
Eric Adams photo
Two drill sites sit on the eastern deposit. The distant drill uses a new "sonic" technology, one geologist said, which further reduces impact on the tundra.
Eric Adams photo
A close-up look at some of the rocks and minerals found in the Pebble deposit.
Eric Adams photo
At this stage of Pebble's project development, everything from drill bits to water hoses and scientists is airlifted into and out of the deposit. Two other helicopters with geologists and hydrologists from Canada touched down during the tour.
Eric Adams photo
A geologist holds up a sample from the Pebble deposit. Notice the small gold specks? Those are among the largest "veins" of gold in the deposit. What's not extractable becomes waste. of tons of waste rock.
Eric Adams photo

As fishermen organize nationally to protect the Bristol Bay watershed from potential adverse affects from mining, the state of Alaska is blasting a federal watershed assessment that could justify prohibitions against mine wastes in the watershed.

On Wednesday, 77 fishing groups and organizations from throughout the United States, including Commercial Fishermen of America and the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association, signed a letter to the Obama Administration asking for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to protect Bristol Bay and its vast natural resources, which include the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon run.

“We thank the Environmental Protection Agency for starting a scientific assessment of the Bristol Bay, Alaska watershed,” the letter said.

“It is places like Bristol Bay where our industry has the rare opportunity to maintain a resource and a fishery that is still healthy, and has the proven capacity to sustain thousands of fishing businesses, from small family–owned operations to some of the largest seafood companies in the country. Let’s protect this fishery, and do it right, while we still have the chance.”

The signers urged the EPA to complete the science-based assessment of Bristol Bay, and if supported by that assessment’s results, apply its authority under the Clean Water Act to withdraw waters and wetlands in the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed from dredge and fill activity associated with large-scale mining operations.

“We're excited to see fishing groups across the country joining forces to support each other in protecting our commercial fisheries,” said Beth Poole, executive director, Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association.

The effort launched by the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association has its own website. A video on it notes that the size of the run is often so strong that if those wild sockeye were extended head to tail, the line would extend all the way from Bristol Bay to Sydney, Australia and back.

More than 12,000 jobs and a $350 million a year commercial fishing industry depend on the abundance of the Bristol Bay fisheries. Together with national fishing organizations and other fisheries stakeholders, they requested last May that the EPA conduct a thorough assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed and determine if it should be protected under the federal Clean Water Act.

The Pebble Limited Partnership, created in 2007 by co-owners Northern Dynasty of Vancouver, British Columbia and Anglo American plc of London, was formed to develop a massive copper, gold and molybdenum mine on state lands at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed. The developers maintain they can construct and operate the mine without harming the wild salmon run.

But mine opponents believe there is potential for some of the estimated 10.78 billion tons of toxic tailings from the mine to disrupt the fishery, particularly in spawning streams.

On March 9, Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty wrote a letter to the EPA, arguing that the assessment was premature, that the EPA lacked the authority to conduct the survey and that the action conflicted with federal and state law. Geraghty said any federal assessment on state lands reaches beyond the authority contemplated by the Clean Water Act.

Geraghty told EPA Region 10 administrator Dennis McLerran that the state wants the EPA to halt its work on the watershed assessment and refrain from exercising its authority until a section 404 permit application has been submitted and other applicable regulatory reviews are conducted.

“Deciding the 404 petition without the benefit of a project application and substantial, scientifically vetted project information would infringe on the state of Alaska’s management and use of state lands,” he said. “The state selected lands with natural resource potential to provide for the economic welfare of the residents of Alaska. A premature decision could thwart those objectives, as established by both Congress in the Alaska Statehood Act and the Alaska Legislature in a myriad of state laws,” he said.

Officials with EPA Region 10 in Seattle are working on a written response to Geraghty’s letter.

This article was originally published by the Cordova Times and is republished here with permission.