EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy disembarked in Girdwood, Alaska yesterday for the start of a three day visit to the state, designated as a “fact finding mission” on two of America’s biggest natural resource issues — climate change and the Pebble Mine proposed near Alaska’s Bristol Bay.
McCarthy’s first public comments, given at the scenic Portage Glacier, highlighted the Obama administration’s high-level prioritization of tackling climate change. “The climate is changing,” she said, “and we need to adapt to that change and make sure communities are prepared.”
Today the administrator delves into the primary focus of her field trip, the so-called Pebble Project, an open pit mine proposed for the heart of the Bristol Bay watershed which is rapidly becoming one of the most controversial industrial initiatives in North America.
The Pebble Mine, proposed by multinational mining conglomerate Anglo American, and its Canadian partner Northern Dynasty Minerals, would excavate a copper, gold, and molybdenum deposit roughly three miles long and thousands of feet deep, and store the resulting mine waste, including millions of tons of potentially acid-generating waste rock, in one or more tailings reservoirs projected to cover more than 12 square miles of virgin Alaskan tundra. The mine, which would be one of the world’s largest, would also require construction of a new power plant, pipelines for ore slurry and natural gas, and more than one hundred miles of new roads. It would be located in the headwaters of two rivers, the Kvichak and the Nushagak, that produce around a quarter of the world’s sockeye salmon harvest.
At present, that salmon catch supports nearly 10,000 full-time jobs and $1.5 billion in economic activity every year, all of which could be put at risk from mine construction, operations, and any potential mine accidents.
After several years of research undertaken in 2010 at the urging of commercial fishermen and several tribes of Alaska Natives, EPA is nearing completion of a comprehensive, peer-reviewed and publicly-vetted study of the biological and mineral resources of the Bristol Bay region. Today, a vast coalition of fishermen, tribes and environmental organizations is actively urging the EPA to use this report, known as the Watershed Assessment, as a basis for pre-emptively stopping the mine, using its rarely-used authority granted to the agency under the Clean Water Act.
Following a flyover of the Pebble Mine site, reportedly with Pebble Mine CEO John Shively, McCarthy will then meet with a range of regional stakeholders. According to an EPA spokeswoman, McCarthy “wants to see the region firsthand and hear directly from community leaders and others who have a stake in this issue.”
Her first stop is a meeting with groups in Dillingham, on the shores of Bristol Bay. In Dillingham, a town of about 2,000 and highly dependent on the annual sockeye salmon catch, the Pebble Project has become Public Enemy No. 1. The town is virtually wallpapered with anti-mine bumper stickers and, according to Norman VanVactor, CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Coalition, and a son of South Dakota gold miners, “ninety-five percent” of the town opposes the mine.
The town’s antipathy is not unfounded. According to the EPA, the mine footprint itself will destroy between 24 and 90 miles of salmon streams, and normal mine operations will pollute dozens more miles of river habitat with two contaminants known to cause acute effects on salmon — copper-laced mine runoff and sedimentation. These impacts not only pose a direct threat to the salmon catch, but would also undermine the sterling reputation of Bristol Bay salmon on world markets and introduce greater uncertainty for the needed annual investments in the fishery and its supply chain, even if no major accidents occur.
McCarthy is also slated to visit the village of Iliamna, about 150 miles upriver from Bristol Bay and the closest municipality to the proposed mine site. Iliamna’s 200 villagers stand to gain a vast influx of employment and services if the mine moves ahead. Given their lack of access to the salmon fishery, many in Iliamna consider Pebble Mine their best hope for an economic lifeline, and will likely communicate this vigorously to the EPA administrator.
This may be one of the best remaining chances these regional stakeholders get to make their case. The EPA closed the comment period on the Watershed Assessment in late June, and there are predictions the completed study will be published this fall. As for the Pebble partnership, the developers have yet to back up the economic benefits they say the mine will bring with specifics of when, where, and how they plan to extract the minerals and store their waste. Stakeholders, agency staff, and Alaska’s congressional delegation continue to wait for the developers to release either formal permit applications or their long-awaited mine plan.
In a July 1, 2013 letter, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) pressed the CEOs of Anglo, Northern Dynasty, and the Pebble partnership to release their plan, criticizing the company for inciting, “anxiety, frustration and confusion that have become the norm in many communities.” She concluded suggesting “the time has come to tell Alaskans whether and how you plan to proceed.”
It will soon be time for to Administrator McCarthy to determine the next step in the process as well — a review of the permit application or a preemptive veto of the project. The fate of one of the last pristine places on the planet, and one of the last great sustainable fisheries, hangs in the balance.