Eclipsed by the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline, the battle over the fate of Alaska’s Bristol Bay has been one of the most intense between industry and ecologists of the new century. Today the Environmental Protection Agency appeared to tip the scales in favor of the native Alaskans and environmentalists who had petitioned the agency to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to block a big mine proposed near the bay’s watershed. Formally, the EPA has initiated a process (under section 404c (PDF) of the act) that could lead to restrictions—or even a veto—on any future mining at the site. For the time being, neither a court nor the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may issue a permit for a mine, and given the findings in its January assessment of the watershed (PDF), it’s difficult to imagine the EPA saying anything but no.
“Extensive scientific study has given us ample reason to believe that the Pebble Mine would likely have significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a conference call announcing the move. “It’s why EPA is taking this step forward in our effort to ensure protection for the world’s most productive salmon fishery from the risks it faces from what could be one of the largest open-pit mines on earth. This process is not something the agency does very often, but Bristol Bay is an extraordinary and unique resource.”