SEATTLE, Washington, July 18, 2014 (ENS) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today proposed regulations to protect one of the world’s most valuable salmon fisheries, in Bristol Bay, Alaska, from the risks posed by a proposed open pit mine nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon and larger than Manhattan.

This deposit of copper, gold and molybdenum is owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals based in Vancouver, Canada and the Pebble Limited Partnership, based in Anchorage, Alaska. It could become one of the largest open pit mines in the world and would threaten one of the world’s most productive salmon fisheries, the EPA said in a statement.

“Bristol Bay is an extraordinary ecosystem that supports an ancient fishing culture and economic powerhouse,” said Dennis McLerran, regional administrator for EPA Region 10 based in Seattle.

mine site

Exploratory equipment at the site of the proposed Pebble Mine (Photo courtesy Northern Dynasty)

“The science is clear that mining the Pebble deposit would cause irreversible damage to one of the world’s last intact salmon ecosystems. Bristol Bay’s exceptional fisheries deserve exceptional protection,” McLerran said.

“We are doing this now because we’ve heard from concerned tribes, the fishing industry, Alaskans and many others who have lived and worked for more than a decade under the uncertainty posed by this potentially destructive mine,” he said. “Simply put, this is a uniquely large mine in a uniquely important place.”

Based on information provided by Northern Dynasty Minerals to investors and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, mining the Pebble deposit is likely to result in a mine pit almost as deep as the Grand Canyon.

Based on mine proponents’ prospectus, EPA estimates the mine would require excavation of the largest open pit ever constructed in North America and would cover nearly seven square miles at a maximum depth of over three-quarters of a mile. The maximum depth of the Grand Canyon is about one mile.

The proposed Pebble Mine would generate mine tailings and waste rock that would fill a football stadium up to 3,900 times, the EPA says.

Mine tailings impoundments would cover about 19 square miles and waste rock piles that would cover nearly nine square miles in an area with productive streams, wetlands, lakes and ponds important for salmon.

In addition, the mine would require a major transportation corridor, pipelines, and wastewater treatment plants.

EPA Region 10 has concluded that mining the Pebble deposit would affect the South Fork Koktuli River, North Fork Koktuli River and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds.

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Salmon in Bristol Bay, July 2011 (Photo by Todd Radenbaugh)

The proposed restrictions are outlined in a document called the Proposed Determination. The restrictions are based on the construction and operation of a 0.25-billion-ton mine. This was the smallest of the three mine scenarios EPA analyzed in the Bristol Bay Assessment and is significantly smaller than the mine presented to Northern Dynasty Minerals investors. “Even the development of this smaller mine would result in unacceptable adverse impacts,” said the EPA.

Based on scientific analysis, EPA Region 10 proposes to restrict all discharge of dredged or fill material related to mining the Pebble deposit that would result in any or all of the following:

Loss of streams: The loss of five or more miles of streams with documented salmon occurrence (coho, Chinook, sockeye, chum, pink); or the loss of 19 or more miles of streams where salmon are not documented, but that are tributaries of streams with documented salmon occurrence

Loss of wetlands, lakes, and ponds: The loss of 1,100 or more acres of wetlands, lakes, and ponds that connect with streams with documented salmon occurrence or tributaries of those streams

Streamflow alterations: Streamflow alterations greater than 20 percent of daily flow in nine or more linear miles of streams with documented salmon occurrence

According to EPA analyses, losses of the nature and magnitude listed above would be unprecedented for the Clean Water Act Section 404 regulatory program in the Bristol Bay region, as well as the rest of Alaska and perhaps the nation.

EPA Region 10 is seeking public comment on its proposal from July 21 to September 19, 2014, and will hold public meetings in Alaska from August 12-15.

In addition to holding public meetings, EPA Region 10 will meet with tribes for formal consultation. The Bristol Bay region is home to 31 Alaska Native Villages. Residents of the area depend on salmon both as a major food resource and for their economic livelihood. Nearly all residents participate in subsistence fishing.

The Clean Water 404(c) process allows for substantial input from the public, the state, the mining companies involved with the Pebble deposit and from Alaska Native tribes. EPA Region 10 will review public comments on its proposal and consider next steps in the process, which could include moving toward a Recommended Determination to the EPA Assistant Administrator for Water.Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier said today the EPA’s action is premature because the company has not yet filed a detailed development plan for the mine.

“We believe that EPA does not have the statutory authority to impose conditions on development at Pebble, or any development project anywhere in Alaska or the U.S., prior to the submission of a detailed development plan and its thorough review by federal and state agencies, including review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

On May 22, the Pebble Limited Partnership filed suit in U.S. District Court for Alaska to halt the EPA’s Clean Water Act regulatory process. PLP’s complaint asserts that, in the absence of a permit application, EPA’s Section 404(c) regulatory process initiated on February 28, 2014 exceeds the federal agency’s authority under the Clean Water Act, and violates the Alaska Statehood Act among other federal laws.

Collier said, “EPA’s attempt to preemptively impose conditions on future development at Pebble, in the absence of completing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), as is required of every major development project in the United States, is causing significant and even critical harm to our business interests and our abilities to fairly advance our project. For this reason, we fully intend to continue our litigation against EPA in order to halt the pre-emptive and unprecedented regulatory process under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, and invalidate the conditions proposed by EPA Region 10.”

In addition to the lawsuit brought by Pebble and the State of Alaska against the EPA, the Office of the EPA Inspector General and another by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform are also investigating the EPA’s regulatory proposal.

There are also two bills pending in Congress seeking to clarify that, in Collier’s words, “EPA does not have authority to preemptively veto or otherwise restrict development projects prior to the onset of federal and state permitting.”

“In aggressively pursuing each of these remedies, the Pebble Partnership is aware that the precedent established by EPA taking preemptive action at Pebble would be devastating for the future of investment in the State of Alaska and throughout the United States,” Collier said.

Northern Dynasty President and CEO Ron Thiessen said in May, “While Congress provided EPA a legitimate and important role in assessing CWA 404 permits, it is clear that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the lead federal agency for such permits and that the State of Alaska also has a central regulatory role to play.”

Thiessen said, “EPA’s unilateral process to pre-judge Pebble before a project is proposed or permits are sought not only undermines the legitimate authority of the USACE and the State, it would also establish a damaging precedent that will have significant long-term effects on business investment in Alaska and throughout the United States.”

The Pebble deposit is located on land that the State of Alaska received during the Cook Inlet Land Exchange of 1974 – a three way land swap involving the federal government, the state and the Cook Inlet Region Inc., an Alaska native regional corporation.

“The Pebble deposit is one of the greatest stores of mineral wealth ever discovered,” the company says. The current resource estimate includes a measured amount of at least 55 billion pounds of copper, 67 million ounces of gold and 3.3 billion pounds of molybdenum, used in steel alloys and armor, aircraft parts, electrical contacts and industrial motors. Silver, palladium and rhenium also occur in the deposit.

Click here for information on Bristol Bay, public meetings and to submit comments.