WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday announced severe restrictions on the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska, a move that is likely to block a project the EPA said could devastate the best run of wild salmon left on the planet.
"The science is clear that mining the Pebble deposit would cause irreversible damage to one of the world’s last intact salmon ecosystems," said Dennis McLerran, Northwest regional administrator for the EPA.
The proposed mine has become one of the country’s biggest environmental controversies, with fishermen in Washington state and Alaska saying it could ruin their livelihoods.
The EPA said that, based on information the mine developer submitted to investors and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the pit of the copper mine could be nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon and produce waste that could fill up a major football stadium 3,900 times. The mining operation could cover an area bigger than Manhattan, the agency said.
The agency had said that its studies indicated the mine could wipe out nearly 100 miles of streams and 4,800 acres of wetlands even without a major accident.
The EPA said Friday it is planning to forbid any discharges that would destroy five or more miles of salmon streams or 1,100 acres of wetlands that connect with the streams. The EPA proposal would also limit how much streamflows the mine could change.
The agency will seek public comments on the planned restrictions until Sept. 19 before the rules become final.
The mine developer didn’t immediately have an answer on whether restrictions are enough to stop the mine.
"We have not yet seen EPA’s proposal, so we will reserve further comments until we have had a chance to read and analyze it," said Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier.
The developer is suing the EPA, arguing the agency doesn’t have authority to take action under the Clean Water Act to move against the mine before it applies for permits. There is also a bill in Congress seeking to stop the EPA from preemptively vetoing the mine.
The EPA said it began looking into the mine at the request of Alaska tribes and others concerned about the salmon. Mine advocates assert the agency was biased and that agency staffers themselves initiated the effort to block the project. The EPA’s inspector general is investigating those allegations.
The controversy has already taken a toll on the mine effort. Two major mining companies have dropped out of the project leaving the remaining company, Northern Dynasty Minerals of Canada, scrambling to find a new partner in order to provide the needed financial backing.