EPA: “Alaska Gold” Mine a Threat to Salmon Fisheries

January 16, 2014
Watch Alaska Gold, in which FRONTLINE explored the battle over the proposed Pebble Mine.

A large-scale copper and gold mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed area would endanger the world’s largest sockeye salmon fisheries and the Alaska Native communities that depend on them, according to a final assessment released this week by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA began looking into the environmental impact of the proposed Pebble Mine in 2010 at the request of several Alaska Native tribes from the area. The mine is estimated to hold more than $200 billion in copper and other metals and would be one of the largest open-pit mines in the world.

The proposed mine also would sit amid the habitat for 50 percent of the world’s sockeye salmon, which has sustained commercial and sports fishery worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year and has been one of the main food sources for the area’s indigenous population.

The EPA report, which was independently peer reviewed by 12 scientists with expertise in engineering, biology and ecology, found that the mine would cause a lasting threat to the area’s delicate ecosystem, both through routine mining operations and potential failures, such as toxic leakage, truck accidents and waste containment disasters.

Pebble Partnership, the company that hopes to build the mine, said the EPA assessment, which was based on a draft Pebble proposal and hypothetical mine projects that could be built in the area, is unfair because Pebble has yet to submit a final proposal with its plans for the site.

“It’s disappointing, frankly, from our view,” Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for the Pebble Partnership, told FRONTLINE. “All we’ve ever asked is that they let us finish our project and then judge us through the rules of the game. Unfortunately, what they’ve done is a very poor bit of work.”

Pebble CEO John Shively said in a statement that the EPA’s assessment was “rushed” and “flawed” because it didn’t take into account the environmental safeguards that Pebble intended to put in place. It also said that the EPA conducted an evaluation of a much smaller area than Pebble’s proposed mine. “Clearly this report should not be used as the basis for any type of agency decision regarding Pebble,” he said.

The report is the latest setback for the Pebble Partnership, which has been working for years to move the project forward. In September, Anglo American pulled out of the controversial project, leaving only its Canadian partner, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. and forcing Pebble to slash its $80 million-a-year budget. In December, under pressure from shareholders, Rio Tinto, which owns a major stake in Northern Dynasty, said it would consider divesting from the company because of its involvement in Pebble.

The EPA report isn’t the final word. It doesn’t make any regulatory or policy recommendations concerning the mine. And Pebble still needs to submit a final proposal. Its timetable was delayed by Anglo American’s exit, Heatwole said, but added that Pebble was “very close” to finalizing its plan. “We want to take our time to get it right,” he said. It would then be reviewed by state and federal agencies.

Still, the EPA could ultimately use its power under the Clean Water Act to block the mine.

Alaska Governor Sean Parnell said Wednesday in a statement that the EPA report was an example of federal overreach. “Every permitting application — when filed — deserves public scrutiny based on facts, not hypotheticals,” he said.

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