Alaska tribes attempt to block the controversial Pebble Mine

Some of the last surviving salmon-based cultures turn to EPA for protection.

  • Sockeye salmon returning to the Bristol Bay region to spawn.

    Ben Knight
  • Subsistence fisher Lydia Olympic hangs her sockeye salmon to dry before smoking it at her family's fish camp along the Kvichak River in Igiugig, Alaska.

    Ben Knight
 

Every summer, nearly half the world's spawning sockeye salmon converge on southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay and forge their way inland up great rivers, their silver bodies turning red and hump-backed. Local Native communities -- some of the last surviving salmon-based cultures -- haul in nets heavy with the fish, an activity, says Curyung Tribal Administrator Dorothy B. Larson, that's "engrained in our DNA."

From the 1970s until 2005, Alaska managed most of the Bristol Bay watershed as key habitat for salmon. Then, likely under industry pressure, it rolled back those protections. In 2007, a consortium of Canadian and British mining companies called the Pebble Partnership formed, with plans to mine copper in the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers. Members of local tribes, fearing water pollution from the Pebble Mine -- which could become one of North America's largest -- asked the Environmental Protection Agency to intervene in 2010. "In some areas, we probably could work mining and fish together," says Larson. "But not at the headwaters of two of the largest-producing salmon rivers in the world." Fishermen and big green groups such as the Natural Resource Defense Council joined the fight. And in April, the EPA released a second draft of a study expressing serious concerns about mining's impact on salmon, raising hopes that the agency might invoke its controversial, seldom-used veto power to halt the project in its tracks.

Under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, the EPA has the power to override infrastructure projects approved by the often pro-development Army Corps of Engineers when fish, wildlife, drinking water or recreation are threatened. It does this  by vetoing the permits for "dredged or fill material" required to excavate mines and construct tailings dams. Environmental groups have often asked the EPA to use 404(c), but it has done so only 13 times, mostly in the Eastern and Southern U.S.

None of those projects posed anywhere near the threat that the Pebble Mine does, says Craig Johnston, a professor at Oregon's Lewis and Clark Law School. (He worked for the EPA in 1986 on the veto of a Massachusetts shopping mall, which would have destroyed what the agency itself called an "ordinary swamp.") And with Pebble Mine's metals valued at more than $48 billion, the project also dwarfs others in terms of potential profits.

EPA's April report found that a hypothetical Pebble Mine could consume several miles of spawning streams and contaminate the watershed with acid mine drainage and copper, which is toxic to salmonids. Leaks in the slurry pipeline transporting the copper to an ocean port would release high concentrations of toxic metals. And a failure of the tailings dams would devastate salmon habitat for decades. To protect salmon and streams, the draft states, mining wastes "would require management for centuries or even perpetuity."

Pebble, which intends to monitor the mine site "for a minimum of 30 years" after mining ceases, according to its website, is critical of the EPA for overlooking potential mitigation measures like constructing new salmon habitat, and for speculating on its plans before it even files for permits (which it may do this year), a concern shared by Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, the state's Department of Natural Resources and some local Native communities supportive of the mine for the jobs and tax revenue it would bring.

The EPA has vetoed high-profile projects in the past: In 1990, for example, then-Administrator William Reilly angered Colorado's congressmen by nixing Denver Water's plans to construct Two Forks Reservoir, which would have destroyed a prime trout stream. And in 2011, then-EPA head Lisa Jackson revoked a permit for a mountain-top-removal coal mine in West Virginia. The mining company appealed, but in April, the Supreme Court upheld the EPA's authority to use 404(c) "whenever" it wants. The Wall Street Journal, echoing outcry from business interests, editorialized that the agency's move was "about killing coal as part of the Obama Administration's climate agenda" and an effort to "shut down industries on ideological grounds," heightening the political risk of vetoing Pebble.

"EPA is under attack for almost everything it's doing," says Pat Parenteau, a professor at Vermont Law School who worked for the agency during three 404(c) cases. "Any action that EPA takes has to be viewed in the larger political context of, 'How many of these battles can the agency fight?' "

The EPA has tried to defuse the pressure by denying that the watershed study portends a veto. But Phil North, who worked as an EPA ecologist on the study before retiring in April, says there is "a lot of sympathy" within the agency for the tribes' concerns. He believes the science of the watershed study is clear: Pebble Mine is incompatible with subsistence life based around Bristol Bay's abundant salmon.

"I've worked on every major mine in Alaska in one capacity or another," he says. "This was the first one that I ever saw, that as I worked on it, I thought, 'You know, maybe this one is not such a good idea.' "

High Country News Classifieds
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • PLANNING & BUILDING DIRECTOR
    Searching for candidates with a Bachelor's Degree in Planning, Community Development, or a related field with 7 years' experience in land use planning forums, including...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...