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Weighing Pebble Mine

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Marshall Swearingen | May 22, 2013 05:00 AM

Each year, nearly half the world's wild sockeye salmon congregate in southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay, then make their way up rivers into a wild land tangled with smaller streams to spawn. There, at the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers, Pebble Partnership proposes to mine copper and gold. The Pebble Mine, if fully developed, would be one of the largest open-pit mines on the world, with earthen dams higher than the Washington Monument to hold mine tailings. Yet the mining company is confident they can contain toxic mine drainage, developing the underground riches without harming the prolific salmon on which the area's residents depend.

The Environmental Protection Agency is skeptical of the mining company's claims, a view expressed in the agency's revised assessment of Pebble Mine. The eagerly awaited study, released in April, reiterates the agency's stance that the mine poses serious risks to the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, and brings EPA one step closer to possibly vetoing Pebble before it is ever built.

In 2010, leaders from among the 31 federally recognized tribes in the Bristol Bay area, where salmon support both subsistence livelihood and a $1 billion commercial fishery, appealed to the EPA for help. They expected that industry-friendly Alaska Department of Natural Resources would permit the mine, and knew that EPA has a unique power, granted by Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act: the agency can restrict or deny projects unilaterally, overruling state and federal permits, when "dredged or fill material" like mine-tailings dams would adversely affect water quality, fisheries, wildlife or recreation.

Like a presidential veto, Section 404(c) is intended to be a check against projects that gain political traction but would have detrimental local impacts. EPA has wielded Section 404(c) only 13 times since 1981, mostly in the eastern and southern U.S. The only time 404(c) trumped a project in a western state was in 1990, when EPA overruled the Army Corps of Engineers and vetoed Denver Water's plan to construct the Two Forks dam on the South Platte River (see HCN 11/20/2000 "Water pressure"). In the most recent case, in 2010, EPA exercised 404(c) against a mountaintop mine in West Virginia. That decision was overturned in district court because EPA denied the project after it had already been permitted, but was upheld in appeals court this spring, affirming EPA's power to veto a project at any time.

Sockeye salmon crowd the river

In the case of Pebble, EPA responded to locals’ requests by initiating a detailed study of the potential impacts of the mine. The study took stock of the salmon fishery and how the locals use it, and envisioned multiple mine-development scenarios and how they might interact with the lush landscape. EPA released the first draft in May 2012, held meetings in native villages to get feedback from local residents, and put the study through a scientific peer review.

EPA's findings are not surprising given the well-established problems of open-pit mines. Besides consuming several miles of spawning streams, the sprawling Pebble Mine could easily leak acid mine drainage and copper -- which is toxic to salmonoids -- into the watershed, according the assessment. Leaks in the slurry pipeline transporting the copper to an ocean port would release toxic metals in high concentrations. And there would always be the threat of a failure of the tailings dams, unleashing a stew of leached heavy metals into the watershed.

Pebble Partnership has predictably criticized the study, accusing the EPA of not taking into account the jobs and tax revenue that the mine would bring, which appeal to many local, native groups. The company reassures on its website that when mining ceases and the pit and tailings piles fill with water, they will monitor and treat the water "for a minimum of 30 years," a brief moment compared to the thousands of years that Bristol Bay's residents have relied on salmon. The company's main criticism is that EPA is using hypothetical mining scenarios, rather than waiting for the company to submit a detailed mining permit proposal. But if EPA did wait, the company would likely criticize the agency for bogging down the permitting process.

The study released in April is a second draft, a response to criticism from both sides. EPA is taking a second round of public comment until May 31, and expects to release its final assessment sometime this year.

Meanwhile, opponents of the mine want EPA to hurry up and use its 404(c) powers. Curyung Tribal Council Chief Tom Tilden recently told the Bristol Bay Times: "We are suffering social and cultural harm from the proposed Pebble mine. We go to bed every night with this conflict heavy on our minds."

Marshall Swearingen is a High Country News intern.

Images courtesy EPA.

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