A long-awaited federal report released Wednesday concludes that a large gold and copper mine in the Bristol Bay area poses significant risks to the region's thriving sockeye salmon runs and its people -- an assessment praised by environmental, fishing and Native groups as sound science and sharply criticized by the group trying to develop the proposed Pebble mine as rushed and flawed.
The Environmental Protection Agency has spent three years studying the potential impacts on salmon of a large, open pit mine in the Bristol Bay region, where half of the world's sockeye salmon are produced. The final report comes after two drafts, 1.1 million public comments and two reviews by an independent 12-member panel of experts.
Among EPA's findings, just building the mine would destroy between 24 to 94 miles of salmon-supporting streams and 1,300 to 5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds and lakes, depending on the mine's size.
"There are clear losses of habitat from the mine footprint and from the mining activities themselves," Dennis McLerran, administrator for EPA's Seattle-based region 10, said in an interview Wednesday. The lost habitat means "significant risks to fish and wildlife and the cultures that are there."
The agency didn't target a particular mine but Pebble is the big project proposed for that region.
Pebble Ltd. Partnership, the mine developer, says the region's mineral deposit is among the largest and richest in the world, with the potential to produce more than 80 billion pounds of copper and 107 million ounces of gold over three decades.
The political and environmental fights over the proposed mine have raged for years and have led to lawsuits and a series of ballot measures, including one approved for the August primary election that, if voters approve, would give the Legislature final say over any large mine in the Bristol Bay region. Some multinational jewelers have said they won't use minerals mined from Pebble. Environmental activists, including actor Robert Redford, oppose it. Pension fund managers from California and New York City are pressuring a Northern Dynasty shareholder, Rio Tinto, to drop the project, too.
But Pebble and its supporters highlight a favorite theme: Let the project backers present a plan and see if it can clear the rigorous permit process.
"If we are going to have the impacts on the fishery that EPA is currently predicting, we don't get a permit. Simple as that," Pebble Partnership chief executive John Shively said. He called the study, which began in 2011, rushed because EPA has taken years longer in some situations.
The EPA "invented" mine scenarios that don't work and aren't engineered to the high standards that Pebble would meet, Shively said. Pebble would create new fish habitat to replace what is lost and the mine footprint needs to be considered in context, he said.
"There are literally thousands of miles of streams and rivers in that region. There are eight different watersheds. We are only next to a couple of them," Shively said.
Those two, the Nushagak and Kvichak river systems, produce a quarter of the world's sockeye salmon, EPA says.
EPA says it used "realistic mining scenarios" drawn from a preliminary plan published by Northern Dynasty Minerals, now the sole owner of the Pebble project. Northern Dynasty last year lost its partner and main investor, mining giant Anglo American.
PUSH FOR VETO
Tribes and other Alaska Native groups in 2010 petitioned EPA to block the mine even before it applies for its main federal permit, through a rarely used section of the Clean Water Act.
Under section 404(c), EPA can prohibit an area from being used for dredged or fill material if it will have "an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas, wildlife, or recreational areas." Around the country, the EPA has only blocked 13 projects under that provision, nine of them in the 1980s. Just once did it veto a project that had yet to seek its dredge and fill permit and in that case, owners of two adjoining properties were seeking permits for the same type of wetlands work. The Florida landowners were stopped from using bulldozers to prepare wetlands for agriculture in that 1988 case.
Instead of a quick veto, EPA did the study, operating under a different section of law.
"With today's release, science has weighed-in: Bristol Bay, its existing jobs and way of life could be irreparably damaged by a large-scale mine that is the size and scope of the Pebble project--and therefore, our fish, our people and our cultures must be protected," Jason Metrokin, Bristol Bay Native Corp. president and chief executive, said in a written statement.
McLerran says that only now, with the scientific study in hand, can EPA determine whether to use its veto power or take another approach, such as participating in the intensive environmental reviews required under the National Environmental Policy Act.
"We owe them a response to the petition," McLerran said. "This is an issue that has weighed heavily on people in the watershed, on all sides of the issue."
On Wednesday, the Bristol Bay Native Corp., Trout Unlimited, Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, Earthjustice and the Alaska Center for the Environment all called on EPA to start the process of blocking the mine.
PARNELL: A PRETEXT
EPA already is overstepping, contend Alaska Republican leaders including Gov. Sean Parnell, as well as business groups.
"This report is little more than a pretext for an EPA veto of the state's permitting process, something the federal Clean Water Act prohibits," Parnell said in a written statement.
Kara Moriarty, president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said the trade group for oil and gas had "grave concerns" about EPA's approach.
"This study disregards the time-tested process by which Alaska's natural resources have been thoroughly vetted, permitted and approved," Moriarty said in a written statement.
Others back the EPA.
"I have always said I will let science be my guide, and my decision whether to support the Pebble project will be based on this report," U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, said. "The stakes are high for Alaska -- I have heard from thousands of Alaskans on this issue -- and that is why I will be thoroughly reviewing the final watershed assessment and continuing to rely on science for any final decision."
Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat who represents Seattle-based fishing interests, said the EPA's scientific report shows the proposed mine "poses a direct threat to Bristol Bay salmon and the Pacific Northwest jobs that depend on them."
State Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat, said EPA is right to take charge because the state permitting process would be bent in favor of Pebble.
Neither EPA nor Pebble could say when they'll make their next move. Pebble has yet to apply for its development permits and in recent years has missed a number of self-imposed time frames for doing so.
"We're continuing to work on defining the project," Shively said. "This is a complicated project. It's a mine. It's a transportation system. It's a port system. It's a power system. All of which have their particular challenges."
As of March, the EPA had spent $2.4 million on contractors for the Bristol Bay assessment, according to what the agency told U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform earlier this year.
It hasn't compiled an updated figure, EPA spokeswoman Hanady Kader said.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER