JUNEAU — A draft review of the proposed Pebble mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region likely underestimates impacts the project could have on fish and other resources, a regional official with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.
In written comments dated Monday but released Tuesday, Chris Hladick said the draft environmental review appears to lack critical information needed to more fully evaluate the proposed Pebble mine.
EPA has said Bristol Bay produces about half the world's sockeye salmon.
Hladick submitted letters and the agency’s more detailed comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is reviewing the Pebble Limited Partnership’s permit application for the proposed copper and gold mine in Southwest Alaska. The comment period on the draft environmental review and application closed Monday. The Pebble partnership is owned by Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.
Mine opponents have criticized the corps' review as flawed. Mike Heatwole, a Pebble spokesman, said Monday the corps has done a "credible, transparent job."
In a statement Tuesday, Heatwole said the Pebble partnership is pleased that EPA put “thought and consideration” into its comments and looks forward to continuing to work through the process.
"The Corps has stated that in their view the project can be developed without harming the Bristol Bay fishery," he said.
The corps' Shane McCoy told reporters earlier this year the analysis so far had concluded the mine would have no long-term impact on the health of the commercial fisheries. He said submitted comments could help further inform the corps' analysis.
The EPA, in its comments, said the productivity of the Bristol Bay fisheries is tied to a diversity of habitat. Losing and degrading the fish habitats and populations "would erode the genetic diversity that is crucial to the stability of the overall" fisheries, it said.
The EPA under the Obama administration proposed restrictions on development in the Bristol Bay region, arguing in 2014 that even the smallest mine size it analyzed could result in "significant and unacceptable adverse effects" on streams, wetlands, lakes and ponds that support local fisheries. Heatwole said that analysis was based on hypothetical scenarios. The proposed restrictions were never finalized.
The agency, as part of a legal settlement with the Pebble partnership in 2017, said it would initiate a process for withdrawing the proposed restrictions. Early last year, it halted that effort, with then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt saying more information was needed.
EPA last week released a memo from its general counsel, Matthew Leopold, who recently visited the Bristol Bay region. Leopold called for Hladick to resume consideration of whether to withdraw the proposed restrictions, a move mine opponents saw as a slap in the face. Leopold described making a decision one way or another as providing clarity on the issue.
Pebble opponents have been leaning on Alaska’s congressional delegation — and namely Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski — to intervene in the process.
Murkowski last week urged the EPA to make known to the corps any concerns it has about the project.
“I continue to reserve judgment about the Pebble mine and am closely following the permitting process to determine whether it can avoid harming Bristol Bay’s world-class fishery,” she said in a statement.