Last summer, the excavation of some of the world’s richest mineral deposits – and the degradation of some of the world's richest salmon habitat – seemed well within the grasp of global mining interests. But with the release of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's long-awaited environmental assessment on Jan. 15, the development of Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay slipped just a little bit further from reach – the latest and perhaps most significant in a series of defeats for the embattled project.
The EPA assessment confirms Pebble’s potential to severely damage salmon runs, using stronger language than previous drafts (“could” has turned to “would”) and describing in detail the acidic waste that could leach into watersheds even under routine operation. The report is also turning the tide of political opinion. "Wrong mine, wrong place, too big," U.S. Sen. Mark Begich told the Anchorage Daily News after reviewing the report. Begich, a Democrat, is the first member of Alaska's congressional delegation to publicly take a stand against Pebble Mine, though previous politicians have also opposed it. Former Gov. Tony Knowles called it “terrifying.”
Despite its gargantuan size – the mine itself would consume up to 94 miles of stream and 5,350 acres of wetlands, with an additional 64 streams affected by road building, the EPA found – Pebble has come to represent more than just a fight for one place or one ecosystem. Even people who have never stood on the banks of a river teeming with salmon are deeply invested in this corner of Alaska as a symbol of wildness, a vestige of the ecological and cultural riches that were once bountiful across North America. As HCN senior editor Ray Ring wrote after visiting Bristol Bay last summer, "the restoration efforts I'd reported on (in the American West) were kind of desperate, almost pathetic" in comparison: "The Lower 48 will never regain the kind of wildness that survives in Alaska."
Perhaps some backstory would be helpful. From the 1970s until 2005, Alaska managed most of Bristol Bay as key salmon habitat. Then protections were rolled back, and mining companies discovered more than 55 billion pounds of copper, 3.3 billion pounds of molybdenum and 67 million ounces of gold beneath the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers – a net worth of $300 billion ripe for the taking. A consortium of mining interests from around the world joined financial forces to form the Pebble Partnership, promoting their vision of digging North America’s largest open-pit mine – the kind of project that could create jobs, boost the economy and expand U.S. copper production by 20 percent, reducing dependence on volatile foreign markets.
But in spite of their business acumen, the consortium underestimated the local passion surrounding Alaskan salmon. Proposing a pollution-spewing mine above the rivers where 46 percent of the world's sockeye spawn would be like telling generations of New Yorkers you’re going to tear down Yankee Stadium to build a bank.
Realizing that the mine could threaten the lifeblood of Bristol Bay – including its vibrant fishing industry and the cultures of tribes that have depended on the great salmon runs for 4,000 years – a coalition of commercial fishermen, environmentalists and tribal corporations dealt Pebble Mine’s first blow through good old-fashioned protests and petitions. Unified opposition to resource extraction is rare in Alaska, and it spurred so much attention that even jewelry designer Tiffany & Co. agreed to boycott gold from Pebble.
Then, simple market forces came into play. In 2011 Mitsubishi Corp., a significant shareholder, pulled out of the venture. Two years later, gold and copper prices began a steady decline, and last September, British mining giant Anglo American, which owned half of the Pebble Partnership, announced it, too, would withdraw to pursue lower risk projects, leaving Canadian company Northern Dynasty as sole owner. Northern Dynasty’s stock fell 38 percent.
Last month, Rio Tinto, a British-Australian corporation that owned 20 percent of Northern Dynasty, announced it may back out as well. Northern Dynasty is limping stalwartly onward, but its chances of being financially capable of taking Pebble beyond permitting and into development look increasingly dismal.
Meanwhile, in 2010, several Native tribes discovered that the EPA wielded a seldom-used power, Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, to override the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and block infrastructure when fish, wildlife, drinking water or recreation are threatened. The tribes asked the agency to invoke its power to block Pebble Mine, and the EPA responded that first, it would need to conduct a thorough study of Pebble's potential impact.
Which brings us to the present. “The EPA went the extra mile to make sure (the final report) was the most scientifically rigorous product they could possibly produce,” says Bonnie Gestring, Northwest program director with the environmental advocacy group EarthWorks. “It went through two rounds of peer review by an independent panel of 12 scientists, which is far more than any environmental impact statement requires.”
The scientists who reviewed the report before it was released were experts in mine engineering, salmon fisheries biology, aquatic ecology, aquatic toxicology, hydrology, wildlife ecology and Alaska Native cultures. But Northern Dynasty put out a vague response, saying that the report’s methodology and analysis are “flawed." Pro-Pebble Alaska Governor Sean Parnell called the report “little more than a pretext for an EPA veto of the state’s permitting process.” The EPA itself has made clear that the report offers only a scientific assessment and isn’t a policy recommendation.
Just what the next step will be depends on whom you ask. Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen said in a prepared statement that the company looks forward to “defining a proposed development plan for Pebble” and hopes the resulting environmental impact statement from the Army Corps of Engineers will be a “more rigorous, fair and transparent review.”
Gestring, however, anticipates that the next step will be the EPA’s response to tribal requests to block Pebble Mine. “There’s no doubt that the (report) provides solid scientific basis for the EPA to move forward and use its regulatory authority,” she says. “The state of the world’s largest wild salmon fishery now rests with the Obama administration.”
Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.