In an effort to protect one of the most productive salmon fisheries in the world, the Environmental Protection Agency this past week exercised a rarely used power to pause progress on what would be the largest open-pit copper mine in North America.
The mining industry has for years eyed the rich gold and copper deposits buried under Alaska’s Bristol Bay, where native tribes have fished for 4,000 years, Audubon magazine reports. In 2010, according to an EPA release, several tribes asked the agency to step in against a mine proposed by Northern Dynasty Minerals, the construction of which would require digging a pit up to 1 mile deep and more than 2.5 miles wide and building dams to deal with disposal of mining waste. After a January EPA study showed that the project “would likely cause irreversible destruction” to the area’s ecosystem, the release says, the EPA decided to open a special review that overrules the normal permitting process for such projects.
“This process is not something the Agency does very often, but Bristol Bay is an extraordinary and unique resource,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in the release.
Opening the review doesn’t mean the project is officially halted, but rather starts a process for collecting information and public comments.
Under the Clean Water Act, anyone seeking to use dredge or fill material in wetlands, lakes or streams must apply for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But the EPA holds a special veto power, which it can use in cases where such a use would be harmful. Only 13 veto decisions have been issued since 1972, while the Corps processes about 60,000 permit applications every year. Its last such action occurred in 2011, when the agency prevented mining waste disposal at the Spruce No. 1 coal mine in Logan County, West Virginia.
Northern Dynasty first detailed its project in a 2006 permit application, according to Audubon. In a release, the company’s CEO says its mining project can be completed without undue harm to the environment. The company is calling for an investigation into the EPA’s report on the project’s environmental effects, saying it “raises serious issues of bias, political motivation and collusion with environmental NGOs.”
More than 850,000 requests to block the mine have been filed with the EPA, from sources ranging from fishermen and tribes to restaurant owners and elected officials. The economy in the area relies heavily on the cleanliness of Bristol Bay’s waters, which produce nearly 50 percent of the world’s wild sockeye salmon, in addition to four other species of salmon and other fish and wildlife. In 2009, the surrounding ecosystem supported about 14,000 jobs and generated about $480 million in economic activity, an EPA spokesperson told weather.com.
“It’s the right step,” Natural Resources Defense Council western director Joel Reynolds told OnEarth Magazine, “because the science is sound, because EPA’s legal authority is clear and because the people of Bristol Bay, by overwhelming numbers, have demanded it.”
Bombay Beach, Calif. , located on the north side of the Salton Sea. (Kris Arnold)