PEBBLE MINE Action initiated to protect Bristol Bay watershed

Cordova Times | Margaret Bauman

February 28, 2014
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Federal environmental officials on Feb. 28 initiated action under the Clean Water Act to identify appropriate options to protect the Bristol Bay salmon fishery in Southwest Alaska, a move that could potentially halt the Pebble mine.

The announcement came from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, who said that 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."

"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," McCarthy said.

Bristol Bay produces nearly 50 percent of the world's wild sockeye salmon, with runs averaging 37.5 million fish annually. The salmon runs are highly productive due in large part to the exceptional water quality in streams and wetlands, which provide valuable salmon habitat, the EPA said.

Dennis McLerran, EPA regional administrator for Region 10 in Seattle, sent letters to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state of Alaska, and the Pebble Partnership initiating action under Section 404 © of the Clean Water Act.

Information provided by the Pebble Limited Partnership and Northern Dynasty Minerals shows that mining the Pebble deposit may involve excavation of a pit up to one mile deep and over 2.5 miles wide- the largest open pit ever constructed in North America.

The EPA noted that disposal of mining waste may require construction of three or ore massive earthen tailings dams as high as 650 feet. The copper, gold and molybdenum deposit lies at the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers, which produce about half of the sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay.

Reaction to the EPA's announcement was mixed, with environmental, sports entities and businesses opposed the mine applauding the EPA's action, the Pebble Limited Partnership calling the move "premature and unprecedented," and Alaska's congressional delegation criticizing federal overreach.

The objective of the Clean Water Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation's waters. The act emphasizes protecting uses of the nation's waterways, including fishing.

Now that the 404 © process has been initiated, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cannot issue a permit for fill in wetlands or streams associated with mining the Pebble deposit until EPA completes the 404© review process.

The Clean Water Act generally requires a permit under Section 404 from the Corps before any person places dredge or fill material into wetlands, lakes and streams. Mining operations typically involve such activities and must obtain Clean Water Act Section 404 permits. Section 404 directs EPA to develop the environmental criteria the Corps uses to make permit decisions. It also authorizes EPA to prohibit or restrict fill activities if EPA determines such actions would have unacceptable adverse effects on fishery areas.

Steps in the review process now under way include the consultation period with the Corps and owners of the site, which was initiated on Feb. 28.

Step 2 is publication of proposed determination, including proposed prohibitions or restrictions on mining the Pebble deposit, in the Federal Register for public comment and one or more public hearings.

Step 3 is a review of public comments and development of recommended determination by EPA's regional administrator to the assistant administrator for water at EPA headquarters in Washington DC

Step 4 is a second consultation period with the Corps and site owners and development of a final determination by the assistant administrator for water, including any final prohibitions or restrictions on mining the Pebble deposit.

Based on input EPA receives during any one of these steps, the agency could decide that further review under Section 404 © is not necessary.

Among those applauding the EPA's decision was Kimberly Williams, director of Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of ten Bristol Bay Native tribes and Native village corporations. "Now we're one big step closer to protecting our salmon, our resources and our people from the proposed Pebble mine," said Williams, who just returned, with more than 30 other Alaskans opposed to the mine from speaking with EPA in Washington DC.

"We're thrilled the EPA is taking this important step to protect the world's greatest wild salmon fishery, and the communities that depend on it," said Jennifer Krill, executive director of Earthworks, in a joint statement with Williams. Also included in their announcement was a statement from Michael Kowalski, chief executive officer of Tiffany & Co., the world famous New York City based jewelry store, who said Tiffany "commends the EPA for its efforts to protect Bristol Bay and the 14,000 jobs that depend on a healthy, sustainable fishery." The store was among a number of jewelry stores that vowed to never purchase precious metals from the mine.

"It is difficult to overstate the significance of this announcement," said Chris wood, president and chief executive officer of Trout Unlimited. "If the EPA follows the science and follows through on this, it will rank as one of the most significant conservation achievements of the past 50 years."

Jason Metrokin, president and chief executive officer of Bristol Bay Native Corp., said that the regional Native corporation supports responsible development, including mining, but that science has shown that the proposed Pebble mine presents "unacceptable risks to Bristol Bay salmon, people and existing economies."

Metrokin said the corporation is continuing to focus on ending the threat of the proposed mine and on creating other appropriate economic opportunities and jobs.

"Katherine Carscallen, sustainability director for the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, said that commercial fishermen have lived for a decade under a cloud of economic uncertainty created by the prospect of the mine.

Carscallen said the BRSDA is pleased that the EPA is responding to a request for Clean Water Act protections, but noted there are still many steps in the process before the threat of mines in Bristol Bay are fully put to rest.

Shoren Brown, speaking for Bristol Bay United, called the EPA announcement "a measured step to protect this extraordinary place."

From the perspective of mine proponents, EPA's decision to initiate action under the Clean Water Act was premature and unprecedented.

Tom Collier, newly appointed chief executive officer of the Pebble Limited Partnership, said the PLP "remain confident in our project and our position.

We will continue to state our case with the EPA as we work through their process," Collier said. "The EPA's actions today are an unprecedented federal action and reflect a major overreach onto an asset of the state of Alaska," he said.

Collier said the Bristol Bay assessment released by the EPA is "not sufficient for any type of agency decision making." Steps taken by the EPA to date "…. Have been biased throughout, and have been unduly influenced by environmental advocacy organizations," he said.

Ron Thiessen, president and chief executive officer of Northern Dynasty Minerals Limited, in Vancouver, British Columbia, which has invested millions of dollars in the project, said that based on input EPA receives during any one of the Clean Water Act steps, the agency could decide that further review under Section 404© is not necessary. Thiessen said for a wide range of reasons, Northern Dynasty remains confident that final decisions about Pebble will be made by federal and state regulators working within the National Environmental Policy Act permitting process, "and not unilaterally and pre-emptively by EPA."

Alaska's congressional delegation also expressed concern over the EPA announcement.

"I have said the Pebble mine is the wrong mine in the wrong place, " said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.

"However, I am skeptical of federal overreach from an administration that has already demonstrated it does not understand Alaska's unique needs," he said.

"I do understand the importance and value of the fisheries resources that are an integral part of the Bristol Bay region," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. "But even with that in mind, for the sake of sound law and policy, I have no choice but to remain strenuously and unequivocally opposed to a preemptive veto by EPA."

And Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, commenting on what he called "EPA's unwarranted involvement on Alaska lands," said "this expansive, jurisdictional power grab proposed by the EPA severely jeopardizes not only Alaska's sovereignty, but the rights of states and all private property owners nationwide.

"…For the EPA to preemptively oppose a project located entirely on state land, a project already subject to a rigorous state permitting process, is a serious threat to any future projects on state of Alaska, Alaska Native, or even individually owned private land," Young said.

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Tagged with: pebble mine, mining, epa, bristol bay, alaska, 404c

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