The Environmental Protection Agency said Monday it will conduct an extensive review of proposed major development projects in the Bristol Bay watershed.
That decision pleased both of Alaska's U.S. senators, Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski, who said they welcomed a scientific assessment of the risks and rewards of the world-class Pebble gold and copper prospect.
Foes of the mine didn't get what they wanted, which was a swift, pre-emptive EPA rejection of Pebble. Advocates of the mine and other projects didn't get what they wanted, either, which is essentially for the EPA to butt out.
That's not likely to happen, despite Rep. Don Young's efforts to strip the agency of a limited veto authority over Army Corps of Engineers permits, or Gov. Sean Parnell's opposition to EPA review.
The EPA should weigh in, with a clear-eyed analysis. Both senators said they want science to drive the decision on whether the mining project should proceed. Both know that politics and science will share the driving unless the science is so overwhelming on one side or the other that the political battle subsides.
Pebble has a high bar to meet. There's a reason that pro-development Alaskans like the late Sen. Ted Stevens said, during his campaign in 2008, that it was "the wrong mine in the wrong place."
Pebble has raised red flags for other supporters of resource development in Alaska. The reason is simple. Protection of the world's richest salmon fishery -- and that protection extends well into the ocean and well upstream in Southwest Alaska -- is a must. This is where former Gov. Jay Hammond's old maxim -- better to err on the side of conservation than development -- applies. Alaska can't afford to err on the scale of a Pebble. We have to be sure.
Sen. Murkowski said in a statement Monday that she wouldn't "trade fish for minerals." At the same time, she said, Alaska rural communities need more than fisheries to be sustainable. Pebble's backers won't apply for permits until later this year. Let's see what the EPA concludes.
BOTTOM LINE: EPA is right to take a long look at Pebble project.