Feds use rare veto to block plan for copper and gold mines in Alaska

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took an unusually decisive step Tuesday, blocking a proposed mine billed by proponents as the world’s most significant undeveloped copper and gold resource, with what the agency cited as unacceptable impacts that the project could have on Alaska’s rich aquatic ecosystem that supports the largest salmon fishery in the world.

The move, welcomed by Alaska Native tribes and environmentalists and condemned by some state officials and mining interests, deals a major blow to the proposed Pebble Mine. The proposed site is in a remote area of ​​the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska, about 200 miles (322 kilometers) southwest of Anchorage.

It’s only accessible by helicopter and snowmobile in the winter, developer Pebble Limited Partnership said in a permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As proposed, it calls for an output of up to 73 million tonnes per year.

An appeal by the Pebble Partnership of a separate denial of a key federal permit has not been granted.

In a statement, Pebble Limited Partnership CEO John Shively called the EPA’s action “illegal” and political and said litigation was likely. Shively described the project as key to the Biden administration’s drive to achieve green energy goals and make the U.S. less dependent on foreign nations for such minerals.

Pebble Limited Partnership is owned by Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.

The Pebble deposit is near the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed, which supports an abundance of salmon “unsurpassed anywhere in North America,” according to the EPA.

Tuesday’s announcement marks just the 14th time in the roughly 50-year history of the federal Clean Water Act that the EPA has changed its authority to ban or limit activities over their potential impact on waters, including fishing. EPA Administrator Michael Regan said his agency’s use of the so-called veto in this case “highlights the true irreplaceable and priceless natural wonder that is Bristol Bay.”

The veto is a victory for the environment, the economy and the tribes of Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, who fought the proposal for more than a decade, said Joel Reynolds, western director and senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The mine would threaten the region’s salmon fishery, which provides 15,000 jobs in the area and supplies about half of the world’s sockeye, Reynolds said. The 2022 harvest is more than 60 million fish, state officials said last year.

“This is a victory for science over politics. For biodiversity over extinction. For democracy over corporate power,” Reynolds said.

EPA, citing an analysis by the US Army Corps of Engineerssaid dumping of dredged or bulk material to build and operate the proposed mine would result in the loss of about 100 miles (160 kilometers) of stream habitat as well as wetlands.

Pebble’s partnership maintains that the project can co-exist with Salmon. The partnership’s website says the site is in the headwaters of three “very small tributaries” and is confident any impact on fisheries “in the unlikely event of an incident” will be “minimal”.

Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the EPA’s veto set a dangerous precedent that could affect future development in the state, while state Attorney General Tregg Taylor said the agency’s action was “legally indefensible.”

“Worryingly, this lays the groundwork to halt any development projects, mining or non-mining, in any area of ​​Alaska with wetlands and fish-bearing streams,” Dunleavy said.

This is Lisa Murkowskian Alaska Republican, said she opposed the mine but said the EPA’s veto should not be allowed to jeopardize future mining operations in the state.

“To be clear: I am against Pebble. To be equally clear: I support responsible mining in Alaska as a national imperative. This decision should not serve as a precedent to guide any other project in our state and should be the only time EPA ever uses its veto power under the Alaska Clean Water Act,” Murkowski said in a statement.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, called the EPA’s action “the final nail in the coffin for Pebble Mine” and the culmination of an uphill battle.

“We will now have thriving salmon in Bristol Bay for generations to come,” she said.

Tribes in the Bristol Bay area petitioned the EPA in 2010 to protect the area under the federal Clean Water Act. Alana Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, said to call the EPA’s announcement “welcome news” is an understatement.

Tim Bristol, executive director of the group SalmonState, praised the EPA’s decision, saying it “may be the most popular thing the federal government has ever ruled for Alaska.”

The EPA’s decision is the latest in years of back-and-forth over the project that has spanned administrations.

Leila Kimbrel, executive director of the Resource Development Council for Alaska Inc., called the EPA’s decision “a dangerous abuse of power and federal overreach.” The National Mining Association, citing high demand for minerals and fragile global supply chains, said local mining “has never been more important.” It said the EPA’s decision was “in stark contrast to national and global realities.”

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Whittle reported from Portland, Maine.

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