As the EPA blocks mining at the Pebble deposit, mine advocates and opponents are paying attention to details

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A digital simulation of what the proposed Pebble Mine’s formation will look like if it receives federal approval. (US Army Corps of Engineers)

In late May, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced it would veto development of the Pebble Mine – a vast copper and gold deposit in the headwaters of Bristol Bay.

The proposal is a step towards a permanent blocking of development of the proposed open pit mine in the Bristol Bay watershed. Mine opponents have been vetoing it for more than a decade.

The EPA said mining the Pebble deposit would result in an unacceptable loss of salmon habitat, both at the site and further downstream. Exercising its powers under the Clean Water Act, the agency is proposing to ban the discharge of mining materials into water bodies and wetlands at the Pebble site. This could make it impossible to extract minerals from the deposit.

United Tribes of Bristol Bay Executive Director Alannah Hurley is opposed to the mine and said the EPA’s move is a step in the right direction.

“Today is a really big day for Bristol Bay — for us to get back on track in this process and for the Biden administration to commit to finishing work to stop Pebble Mine once and for all very exciting,” she said. “But we are not there yet. We definitely have to get through the rest of this process.”

She said her organization will read carefully EPA proposalwhich has released it for public examination.

The mine would result in the loss of nearly 100 miles of stream habitat, 8.5 miles of salmon habitat and 2,113 acres of wetlands and bodies of water at the mine site, the EPA notes from the mine plan.

When completed, the EPA’s decision would prohibit digging and dumping of material in the area delineated in Pebble’s 2020 mine proposal. That could kill the project. The EPA also wants to limit the use of bodies of water as disposal sites for any future mine proposals that large or larger.

EPA has exercised its “veto” power under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act only 13 times in the 50-year history of the law. It allows the agency to ban projects that would cause significant damage to habitats or recreational areas.

Hurley said she hopes the EPA’s proposal will ban the mine forever, but she’s been here before. The Obama administration also proposed a veto on the mine. That was in 2014 — three years before Pebble submitted his proposal.

“As many will recall, they were held up in court,” Hurley said. “And when the federal administration changed [with the election of Donald Trump]they were eventually withdrawn.”

Meanwhile, the US Army Corps of Engineers denied Pebble a federal permit for 2020. The company that plans to build the mine, Pebble Limited Partnership, has appealed the decision.

For his part, Pebble called the EPA’s proposal a step backwards not only for the mine but also for President Biden’s climate goals. Minerals like copper are used to make batteries and in other renewable energy technologies. Pebble said the government should not impede domestic production.

Pebble spokesman Mike Heatwole said the company will be reviewing the EPA proposal closely to see in which areas it imposes restrictions.

“If you read between the lines of EPA action here, that’s more than 400 square miles of land in the state of Alaska that the federal government is proposing to take off the table,” Heatwole said. “There’s just a lot of detail in the EPA’s proposals that really needs to be examined to know how it’s all going to work.”

Heatwole said the company will review how the EPA incorporates the US Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental findings.

“These are very clear both in terms of unaffected fisheries and in terms of water resources,” he said.

The company has consistently claimed that the mine would bring jobs and prosperity to the area without significantly impacting Bristol Bay’s fisheries.

The scope of the EPA proposal extends only to the disposal of materials related to the Pebble deposit. While Pebble is the largest mining claim in the region, it is not the only one.

Hurley of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay said tribes and anti-mining groups in the region and across the country want broader protection of the area.

“How do we make sure that our future generations don’t fight these kinds of proposals 20 years from now?” she said. “This includes the completion of this EPA process to protect all of our region’s headwaters near the Pebble mine site.”

Public hearings on the EPA proposal will take place in June. The EPA is also accepting written comments through July 5.

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