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EPA starts process that could restrict Pebble Mine

Posted: March 2, 2014 - 1:07am

JUNEAU — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it is taking the first steps toward restricting or even prohibiting development of a massive gold-and-copper prospect near the headwaters of a premier sockeye salmon fishery in southwest Alaska — though no final decision has been made.

While the rarely used EPA process is underway, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cannot approve a permit for the proposed Pebble Mine project.

The announcement Friday follows release of an EPA report in January that found large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed posed significant risk to salmon and could adversely affect Alaska Natives in the region, whose culture is built around salmon.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy made clear Friday that no final decisions have been made. While McCarthy said scientific and other data has provided “ample reason” for EPA to believe a mine of the size and scope of Pebble “would have significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its salmon-bearing waters,” she said EPA is open to receiving more information.

Mine opponents have been urging EPA to take steps to protect the region and hailed Friday’s announcement as significant. Supporters of Pebble Mine fear that EPA will move to block the project even before it gets to the permitting phase.

Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership, which is working to advance the mine project, called the EPA process a “major overreach.” In a statement, Collier said EPA’s actions to date “have gone well outside of its normal practice, have been biased throughout, and have been unduly influenced by environmental advocacy organizations.”

He said the partnership remained confident in its project — calling it an important asset for the people of Alaska — and said Pebble would continue to make its case with EPA.

McCarthy told reporters on a teleconference that EPA is initiating the process under the Clean Water Act to determine how it can best use its authorities “to protect Bristol Bay rivers, streams and lakes from the damage that will inevitably result from the construction, operation and long-term maintenance of a large-scale copper mine.”

EPA has rarely used this specific authority, which it can exercise before a permit is applied for. The agency says it has only done so 29 times in the past, and in 13 of those cases the EPA decided to take steps to limit or prohibit activity.

In this case, McCarthy said, “the Bristol Bay fishery is an extraordinary resource and is worthy of out-of-the-ordinary agency actions to protect it.”

The watershed produces nearly half the world’s wild sockeye salmon, a fish that is important for Alaska Natives in the region. McCarthy called the watershed one of most productive ecosystems on the planet.

A spokeswoman for Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell called the EPA action egregious and beyond federal overreach.

“The EPA has not only cut off public input and process, but has also unilaterally decided that they, not Alaskans, know what’s best for our future,” said Sharon Leighow by email. “The State is prepared to pursue all legal options to ensure Alaska’s rights are protected.”

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said EPA was continuing to move toward a “premature veto based on what it assumes may happen with this project. We already have undeniably grave problems with federal agencies blocking resource production on federal lands in Alaska. Now to see a federal agency overstep its authority and move prematurely to block even the consideration of a permit for potential activity on state lands is something I simply cannot accept.”

Regional administrator Dennis McLerran said information provided by the Pebble Partnership and Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., the mine’s owner, showed mining would involve excavating “the largest open pit ever constructed in North America, completely destroying” an area as large as 7 square miles and that disposal of waste material would require building three impoundments covering another 19 square miles.

In a letter to officials with the state, Pebble Partnership and corps, McLerran also said the EPA’s report estimated that discharges of dredged or fill material associated with the footprint of the mine would likely cause “irreversible loss of significant reaches” of salmon- and other fish-supporting streams, as well as extensive areas of wetlands, ponds and lakes.

McLerran said the process relates only to the Pebble deposit and not to other mining or non-mining development in the watershed.

Tribes and others petitioned the EPA in 2010 to protect Bristol Bay, a request that gave rise to the watershed assessment released in January.

Friday’s action means the corps, state and those behind the mine project will be allowed to submit information to the EPA to show no “unacceptable adverse effects” to aquatic resources would result from mining-related discharges or that actions could be taken to prevent unacceptable effects to waters, according to the letter. Regulations call for responses within 15 days, though extensions can be granted. McLerran told reporters this will be an opportunity for the state and Pebble to rebut what EPA has put forth.

If McLerran is not satisfied with their response, the agency will publish proposed restrictions or prohibitions on mining at the Pebble deposit and gather public comment. There will be a second round of consultation before a final decision is made.

The entire review process could take about a year, he said, and the agency, at any point, could decide further action on its part is unnecessary.

The Pebble Partnership has called the mine deposit one of the largest of its kind in the world, with the potential of producing 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum over decades. Northern Dynasty has been looking for a new partner after Anglo American PLC pulled out last year, citing a prioritization of projects. Pebble has criticized the EPA process as flawed and has said that it has yet to finalize its mine designs.

___

Online:

EPA letter: http://1.usa.gov/1hqCGo7

Pebble Limited Partnership: http://www.pebblepartnership.com/

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Tim Miller
558
Points
Tim Miller 03/02/14 - 11:52 am
5
0
Pebble Mine will have an

Pebble Mine will have an earthen containment dam that is 10+ square miles wide and 700 feet high at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed that will need to last for eternity.

The dam and 10-square-mile-wide containment pond are intended to hold between 2.5 billion and 10 billion tons of mine waste that Pebble would produce over its lifetime.
Because the sulfide, or acid-generating, nature of the Pebble ore body, the waste would require environmental treatment in perpetuity. This means the costs will be on the backs of our kids. Any release of mine waste into the surface or groundwater will harm Bristol Bay’s salmon runs.

I am also fed up with Lisa Murkowski and Sean Parnell using public funds and resources to lesson regulations for private industry. In addition, I do not approve of Sean Parnell or when our Representatives engage in conduct designed to urge or incite others to beat the anti-federal government drum because the people they are speaking of are our neighbors.

Who will bail out our state when the 10+ square mile, 700 feet high dam breaks? Probably the federal government will which is US tax payers.

James Coleman
2053
Points
James Coleman 03/02/14 - 01:18 pm
1
3
Not for Pebble but...

I'm not for Pebble but it's not good having the EPA up here throwing their weight around. The mega agency has way too much power and ruled by too few individuals. These folks are not our friends. When they put the King Salmon on the endangered species list you'll see change alright.

Tim Miller
558
Points
Tim Miller 03/02/14 - 04:06 pm
3
1
EPA regulations save

EPA regulations save lives.
The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that the Clean Air Act saved 160,000 lives in 2010 alone. that Mercury Standards and Toxic Rules will prevent up to 17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks, and over 12,000 hospital and emergency room visits.

Our state is being run by outside resource-extraction industries: they elect our politicians, draft our laws, and administer our agencies and departments. The public needs the EPA. The EPA acts like a check and balance system which operates in the public’s best interest.

James Coleman
2053
Points
James Coleman 03/03/14 - 08:25 am
0
1
Who is this Union?

Who is this Union of Concerned Scientists? What are their credentials? They throw out all their statistics and no ones questions them. Do you realize its these evil "extractors" that put the food on your table?

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