The US Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday in effect vetoed a proposed copper and gold mine in a remote region of south-west Alaska that is coveted by mining interests but that also supports the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.
The move by the agency, heralded by Alaska Native tribes and environmentalists who have long pushed for it, deals a potentially devastating blow to the proposed Pebble mine and comes while an earlier rejection of a key federal permit for the project remains unresolved.
John Shively, the CEO of Pebble Limited Partnership, in a statement called the EPA’s action “unlawful” and political and said litigation was likely. Shively has cast the project as key to the Biden administration’s push to reach green energy goals and make the US less dependent on foreign countries for such minerals.
The Pebble Limited Partnership, the developer behind Pebble Mine, is owned by Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.
Tuesday’s announcement marks only the 14th time in the roughly 50-year history of the federal Clean Water Act that the EPA has flexed its powers to bar or restrict activities over potential impacts to waters, including fisheries.
The EPA administrator, Michael Regan, said his agency’s use of its so-called veto authority in this case “underscores the true irreplaceable and invaluable natural wonder that is Bristol Bay”.
The veto is a victory for the environment, economy and tribes of Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, which have fought the proposal for more than a decade, said Joel Reynolds, western director and senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The mine would have jeopardized the region’s salmon fishery, which brings thousands of jobs to the area and supplies about half the world’s sockeye salmon, Reynolds said.
“It’s a victory for science over politics. For biodiversity over extinction. For democracy over corporate power,” Reynolds said.
The Pebble deposit is near the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed, which supports a bounty of salmon “unrivaled anywhere in North America”, the EPA has said.
The agency, citing an analysis by the US army corps of engineers, said discharges of dredged or fill material to build and operate the proposed mine site would result in a loss of nearly 100 miles (160km) of stream habitat, as well as wetland areas.
The Pebble partnership has maintained the project can coexist with salmon. The partnership’s website says the deposit is at the upper reaches of three “very small tributaries” and expresses confidence any impacts on the fishery “in the unlikely event of an incident” would be “minimal”.
Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, welcomes the EPA’s move: “Under President Biden, the EPA has not only restored its commitment to science and law but truly listened to the original stewards and first peoples of this land.”
Alaska’s governor, Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, said the EPA’s veto constituted a “dangerous precedent” that could have ramifications down the road for development in the state. The state attorney general, Treg Taylor, also called the decision “legally indefensible” and a subversion of Alaska’s permitting process.
“Alarmingly, it lays the foundation to stop any development project, mining or non-mining, in any area of Alaska with wetlands and fish-bearing streams,” Dunleavy said.
Tuesday’s announcement represents the latest blow to the project. Late in former president Donald Trump’s term in 2020, the army corps of engineers denied a key permit for the project. An appeal filed by the Pebble partnership is pending.
The EPA’s decision said it is prohibiting certain waters from being used as disposal sites for the discharge of material for the construction and operation of the project Pebble proposed. The decision also prohibits future proposals to build or operate a mine to develop the deposit that would result in the same or greater level of impacts and imposes restrictions related to future proposals to develop the deposit.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said she opposed the mine, but added the EPA’s veto should not be allowed to jeopardize future mining operations in the state.
The project is about 200 miles (320km) south-west of Anchorage. The nearest villages are within about 20 miles (32km) of the deposit.
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