The Obama administration proposed tight restrictions on a planned open-pit copper and gold mine at Alaska’s Bristol Bay that a U.S. lawmaker said could halt the project before it gets started.
The Environmental Protection Agency wants to curb mining waste that would be dumped in streams or wetlands to protect rivers that are among the largest salmon spawning runs in the world. The proposal, issued before developers seek permits, is subject to comment before final agency action.
“EPA’s proposal today is an unprecedented attempt to shut down a mining project before it has even reached the permitting stage,” Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, said in a statement. “EPA’s decision firmly demonstrates a commitment to ensuring further business uncertainty and scaring away investment.”
The Kvichak River, part of the Bristol Bay watershed in southwest Alaska, produces more sockeye salmon than any other river in the world, according to the EPA. The fisheries in the region produce hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development a year, the agency said.
As a result, “the closer you are to the mine site, the greater the opposition to the project, because you have a healthy industry based on salmon,” said Tim Bristol, director of Trout Unlimited’s Alaska program. Bristol is fighting the project, and says EPA’s decision today puts critics closer to victory. “But there is a long way to go.”
Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., the company planning to develop the mine, said it could provide billions of dollars of benefits for the state and country. It sued to block the agency’s consideration of the mine before the company has applied, and criticized the agency for taking this action while that lawsuit is pending.
“We note the agency is seemingly moving away from pre-emptively vetoing the Pebble Project in favor of imposing specific conditions on future development,” Northern Dynasty said in a statement. “We fully intend to continue our litigation against EPA in order to halt the pre-emptive and unprecedented regulatory process.”
The Pebble mine prospect area about 300 miles (480 kilometers) southwest of Anchorage has one of the world’s largest concentrations of copper, molybdenum and gold.
“Bristol Bay is an extraordinary ecosystem that supports an ancient fishing culture and economic powerhouse,” said Dennis McLerran, the EPA administrator for the Alaska region. “The science is clear that mining the Pebble deposit would cause irreversible damage to one of the world’s last intact salmon ecosystems.”
The EPA’s action angered Republicans such as Vitter because the agency’s review was based on regulatory filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission, not an application from the developers. The company said EPA’s assessment of the project is based on mining scenarios that are outdated.