Large-Scale Copper and Gold Mining In Bristol Bay Poses Major Risks, EPA Finds

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By Rachel Leven

Jan. 15 — A large-scale copper and gold mine operation in Bristol Bay, Alaska, poses significant near- and long-term risks to the region, an Environmental Protection Agency assessment released Jan. 15 found.

The assessment found large-scale mining operations in the Pebble deposit would cause significant damage to Alaska native cultures and to the region's salmon fisheries, which produce nearly 50 percent of the world's wild sockeye salmon. The scientific assessment doesn't recommend any policy or regulatory decisions, EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran said on a call with reporters.

The EPA conducted the assessment starting in 2011 in response to requests from fishing, Alaska Native, and environmental groups for the EPA to use the Clean Water Act to preclude a Section 404 dredge-and-fill permit for the Pebble Mine. The EPA loosely based report parameters on information published by the potential mine's owner, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., and other sources, because the company hasn't submitted a permit. This means the report is on large-scale mining operations rather than specific impacts of the potential Pebble Mine.

The large open-pit copper mine, which would be managed through the Pebble Limited Partnership, would be one of the largest of its kind in the world.

The EPA will now start considering the previous requests from tribes regarding its authority to block a dredge-and-fill permit for the mine under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, McLerran said. The report is titled “An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska.”

Next Step

“[The assessment] will stand as the basis for the next step that we make,” McLerran said. “But should a mine plan and permit application be filed by the owners of the Pebble deposit, then there will be regulatory processes associated with that, as well, including permitting actions by the state, the Corps of Engineers, other agencies, and a National Environmental Policy Act assessment, as well.”

The report, which Northern Dynasty urged the EPA in July to halt, is the latest negative publicity to hit the Pebble Mine project in recent months. In September, Anglo-American Plc left the Pebble Limited Partnership, leaving Northern Dynasty as the sole owner.

In December, Rio Tinto Plc announced it would consider divesting from Northern Dynasty, days after two state trustees threatened to divest from Rio Tinto due to its support of the Pebble Mine.

Northern Dynasty hasn't made a decision regarding when to submit its clean water permit application for the mine to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for the Pebble Limited Partnership, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 15 the report won't change the company's path forward, and the partnership will continue working with Northern Dynasty to find a new partner.

Report's Findings

The EPA estimated that, depending on the mine's size, between 24 miles and 94 miles of salmon-supporting streams would be destroyed, and another nine miles to 33 miles of salmon-supporting streams would have their stream flow altered, potentially affecting the ecosystem. Between 1,300 acres and 5,350 acres of wetlands also would be destroyed, according to the report.

Large amounts of wastewater, mine waste and leachates would have to be managed and treated during mining operations and after they end, the report said. To meet existing water quality criteria, the mining operation would need a greater capture efficiency than 99 percent, the report said.

“It is unlikely that such a high capture efficiency could be routinely achieved over the lifetime of the mine,” Jeff Frithsen, acting associate director for ecology at the EPA Office of Research and Development, said on the reporters' call.

Runoff or uncollected contaminate from waste rock piles or other sources could increase copper levels in streams and cause salmon to avoid the contaminated habitat or “rapidly induce death of many or all fish,” including invertebrates that fish consume, the report said. The EPA report estimated direct or indirect negative effects on fish within 13 miles to 51 miles of streams during normal mining operations, the report said.

CEO Criticizes Findings

John Shively, chief executive officer for the Pebble Limited Partnership, criticized the report, saying in a statement that it doesn't take into account “the most advanced engineering and mining practices” or mitigation and environmental safeguards required by regulatory authorities.

“EPA did not take the time nor did it commit the financial resources to assess the potential impacts of development in an area the size of the state of Ohio,” Shively said. “It is both a poorly conceived and poorly executed study, and it cannot serve as the scientific basis for any decisions concerning Pebble.”

Environmental and local groups hailed the report and called for the EPA to use its authority to block the project. Groups as varied as the National Wildlife Federation and Tiffany & Co. urged the EPA to protect the sockeye salmon fisheries and the region.

“Fishermen from coast-to-coast understand how important Bristol Bay's salmon are to our nation's fisheries and economy,” Bob Waldrop, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, said in a statement. “It is time to protect one of the last great salmon fisheries left on this planet.”

Republican Lawmakers Comment

Republican lawmakers also immediately responded to the study, urging the EPA not to use its preemptive veto, an authority Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she doesn't believe the EPA has. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said in a statement the EPA was “setting a dangerous precedent by justifying its political prejudices on a flawed Assessment based on hypotheticals.”

“Today's announcement shows just how Obama's EPA operates, choosing political motivation over giving a fair chance to businesses interested in investing in America and creating jobs,” Vitter said. “This is a very scary signal that the EPA is sending to businesses—that they are capable of and willing to kill a project before an application is even submitted.”

 

To contact the reporter on this story: Rachel Leven in Washington at rleven@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

The final report, An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska, is available at http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/bristolbay/recordisplay.cfm?deid=253500.