By BECKY BOHRER
2014-03-01 03:01 AM
JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking the first steps toward possibly restricting or even prohibiting development of a massive gold-and-copper prospect near the headwaters of a world-premier sockeye salmon fishery in southwest Alaska.
The decision 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.
The action, being announced Friday, is what supporters of the proposed Pebble Mine have feared -- and could result in the agency blocking the project, even before it gets to the permitting phase. Opponents of the mine have urged EPA to take steps to protect the region.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a release that scientific study has provided "ample reason to believe that the Pebble Mine would likely have significant and irreversible negative impacts" on the watershed and its salmon. The watershed produces nearly half the world's wild sockeye salmon, a fish that is important for two groups of Alaska Natives in the region, Yup'ik Eskimos and the Dena'ina.
McCarthy said the agency is exercising its authority under the Clean Water Act "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."
Regional administrator Dennis McLerran said information provided by the Pebble Limited Partnership and Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., which are working to develop the Pebble deposit, showed excavation for the mine "completely destroying" an area as large as 7 square miles (18 sq. kilometers) and that disposal of waste material would require building three impoundments covering another 19 square miles (49 sq. kilometers).
In a letter being sent to officials with the state, Pebble Limited Partnership and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 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.
The entire review process could take about a year.