Trump’s EPA wants to give a massive mining project in Alaska another chance

Experts fear the copper mine would cause “catastrophic” impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed.

A Pebble Mine project worker test drills in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska. CREDIT: AP Photo/Al Grillo

The volume of toxic waste produced from the smallest mine proposed at the Pebble Mine project in the Bristol Bay watershed of Alaska would be enough to fill a professional football stadium more than 880 times. The toxic waste produced by the largest of the proposed mines at the site would do so more than 3,900 times.

But the Environmental Protection Agency, under the leadership of industry-friendly Scott Pruitt, is throwing caution to the wind as it chooses to overlook the enormous environmental hazards posed by the project.

The EPA on Tuesday proposed to cancel an Obama-era determination that, if finalized, would have blocked development at the Pebble gold and copper prospect in southwest Alaska.

For the next 90 days, the EPA will seek public comment on withdrawing the proposed 2014 restrictions on “the use of certain waters in the Bristol Bay watershed for disposal of dredged or fill material associated with mining the Pebble deposit.” The agency said it will consult with tribal governments in the Bristol Bay region and with Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Regional and Village Corporations with lands in the Bristol Bay watershed.

But at the close of the public comment and tribal consultation process, the EPA will decide whether to issue a final withdrawal of the EPA’s 2014 proposed determination.

The Trump administration’s proposed withdrawal “is an outrageous capitulation to mining interests at the expense of the American people and our economy,” Taryn Kiekow Heimer, senior policy analyst for the Marine Mammal Protection Project, Land and Wildlife Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in a Tuesday blog post. “Instead of putting America first, it puts us dead last — behind the interests of a foreign mining company,” she said.

The Pebble Limited Partnership is 100 percent owned by The Northern Dynasty Partnership, which is a wholly owned Canadian-based subsidiary of Northern Dynasty Minerals Limited.

The EPA’s 2014 assessment was the product of a multiyear effort to assess the Bristol Bay watershed. The Pebble Limited Partnership sued the EPA later that year on the belief the EPA was biased in conducting the Bristol Bay assessment.

In May, the EPA, under Pruitt’s leadership, agreed to initiate a process to propose to withdraw the proposed determination as part of a settlement agreement with Pebble Limited Partnership, whose subsidiaries own the mineral claims to the Pebble deposit.

The settlement agreement resolved the litigation brought by the company against the EPA’s Bristol Bay assessment. The agreement provides the mining company additional time to apply for a Clean Water Act permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before the EPA conducts any further review under Clean Water Act Section 404(c).

The proposed Pebble mine project would sit at the headwaters of Bristol Bay’s watershed, which is home to annual wild salmon runs that exceed 50 million fish. Bristol Bay’s $1.5 billion annual sustainable commercial fishery provides 14,000 jobs and supplies half of the world’s sockeye salmon.

“It’s absurd that the EPA and our elected officials are bending over backwards to appease a foreign mining company at the expense of good-paying Alaskan jobs,” Brian Kraft, owner of Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge, which sits on the Kvichak River, a few miles from the proposed mine site, said in a statement Tuesday.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is one of Kraft’s elected officials who is siding with the Canadian mining company. The Alaska senator opposed the Obama administration’s proposed determination, accusing the EPA of “setting a precedent that strips Alaska and all Alaskans of the ability to make decisions on how to develop a healthy economy on their lands.”

According to polls, though, more than 65 percent of Alaskans, 80 percent of Bristol Bay residents and Native communities, and 85 percent of commercial fishermen oppose the mining project.

The EPA’s proposed determination to protect Bristol Bay and limit the Pebble mine came at the direct request of tribes, communities, the fishing industry, and businesses of Bristol Bay. The agency undertook an extensive three-year, twice-peer reviewed scientific assessment that found a mine like Pebble would have “significant” and potentially “catastrophic” impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed.

The Pruitt EPA explained in its proposal that withdrawing the proposed determination would “remove any uncertainty, real or perceived, about PLP’s [Pebble Limited Partnership] ability to submit a permit application and have that permit application reviewed.”

The Obama EPA conducted an extensive study that left little uncertainty to the potential hazards of the project. In its proposed determination, the EPA said peer-reviewed scientific and technical research determined that the effects of the mining would have “unacceptable environmental effects.”

Mining the Pebble deposit, a large copper deposit that underlies portions of the South Fork Koktuli River, North Fork Koktuli River, and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds, will likely involve excavation of the largest open pit ever constructed in North America, covering up to 6.9 square miles and reaching a depth of more than three-quarters of a mile, the EPA said in its proposed determination.

Disposal of the waste material from the mining would require the construction of up to three mine-waste impoundments, covering an additional 19 square miles and including waste-rock piles covering up to 8.7 squares. All of these deposits will be occurring in an area that contains highly productive streams and wetlands, the EPA said.