EPA warns major mining would pose a threat to Alaska salmon

Large-scale mining operations in Alaska's Bristol Bay region would harm habitat for wild salmon, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded in a draft assessment Friday, but agency officials said they had not decided whether they would move to block a proposal for a major gold and copper mine.

The Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds produce nearly half the world's sockeye salmon. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., tribal leaders, environmentalists and salmon-fishing operators have lobbied the EPA to invoke the Clean Water Act, which includes provisions protecting fishery areas, to block the mining project.

Northern Dynasty Minerals, a Canadian company, this week announced it would spend roughly $107 million to prepare its Pebble Mine project for permitting by the end of the year. The firm will produce a detailed description of the project, which could produce more than 80 billion pounds of copper, 107 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum.

The company and its subsidiary, Pebble Limited Partnership, estimate the mine also could produce 2,000 jobs during construction and 1,000 jobs later.

EPA regional administrator Dennis McLerran said Friday that large-scale mining is likely "to have adverse impact on the productivity and sustainability of the salmon fishery" in Bristol Bay, primarily through destruction of habitat. He described the draft as "a scientific document" and not "a regulatory decision," emphasizing it was an analysis of the potential impact of a hypothetical scenario, rather than of a specific project.

He noted that besides Pebble, "at least seven mine proposals are in advanced stages of exploration and development."

The study estimated that a large-scale mine "would likely result in the direct loss" of 54 to 87.9 miles of streams and 3.9 to 6.7 square miles of wetlands. Water withdrawals for mine operations "would significantly diminish habitat quality" in an additional 1.2 to 6.2 miles of streams, it added.

While a breach of dams containing mine tailings is highly unlikely, the report said, other "potential accidents" include acid, metal and other contaminants.

John Shively, chief executive of the Pebble Limited Partnership, questioned the study's integrity, given that it was conducted in one year.

"We've been studying a small part of these two watersheds for eight years," he said, adding the company had spent $120 million on scientific studies.

Sharon Leighow, spokeswoman for Alaska Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, said the governor "will work to ensure any new development fully protects the resource values of the area" but believes "the EPA has clearly overreached with this unprecedented process. Without a specific proposal, the EPA cannot evaluate the potential impacts or risks from the project."

However, many fishing operators and Bristol Bay residents say any mining operation could jeopardize the area's average annual run of 37.5 million sockeye salmon. The EPA estimated Bristol Bay's wild-salmon fishery and other ecological resources generate $480 million in annual revenue and provide at least 14,000 full-time and part-time jobs.

Cantwell, the first U.S. senator to encourage use of the Clean Water Act to halt the project, has noted the issue also is crucial to Washington state's economy. Bristol Bay provides more than $100 million a year for its commercial fisheries.

"Nearly 1,000 Washingtonians hold commercial fishing permits in Bristol Bay, supporting thousands more fishery jobs in my state," Cantwell wrote in a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson last fall.

In a statement Friday, Cantwell said, "This draft report validates the concerns of the Alaska and Washington fishing fleets that the proposed Pebble Mine could have devastating impacts to the Pacific Northwest's maritime economy."

Elizabeth Dubovsky, salmon-outreach director for Trout Unlimited's Alaska program, said she was confident the analysis would lead the Obama administration to block mining operations.

"This is not about being anti-mining," Dubovsky said. "This is about recognizing that some places are not appropriate for these sorts of industrial activities."