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Both sides in the fight over a proposed hard-rock mine near Alaska’s Bristol Bay are ratcheting up their public relations efforts, as the EPA’s comment period for a draft ecological risk assessment of the watershed draws to a close at the end of June.
The EPA is being asked to use its rarely exercised veto authority under the Clean Water Act (PL 92-500) to block the mining project even before the Pebble Partnership files for permits. The scientific assessment of the risks to the area’s economy from mining operations would form the basis of any regulatory action by the EPA.
Neither a final risk assessment nor a formal mine plan exists yet publicly, rendering the issue a debate over hypotheticals, at least for now. But two competing narratives are emerging from the lobbying efforts: one of a regulatory agency that is overreaching beyond its charge to conduct an unbiased review of a sensitive region’s environment and another of a resource-grab by international mining companies that are trying to diminish the environmental impact of its proposal.
At the cornerstone of the debate is the EPA scientific evaluation of the risks that developing the mining operation would pose to a watershed that’s the home to the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. EPA critics are trying to undermine the scientific basis of preliminary findings that stream and wetland losses caused by mining operations would make those fisheries less productive.
“This is still a relatively new conversation in D.C.,” said Peter Robertson, senior vice president for corporate affairs at the Pebble Partnership, the entity established by the project owners to manage mining plans and lobbying efforts.
Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., which owns half of the project with mining giant Anglo American, says the Pebble deposit is the largest undeveloped copper, gold and molybdenum resource in the world. Proponents argue that valuable metals that the mine would produce are integral to telecommunications, national security and clean-energy needs. They say Pebble Mine would create thousands of jobs for Alaskans — including native populations struggling with high unemployment — as well as residents of the Lower 48.
The partner companies also have pledged not to build the mine if it cannot “coexist” with a healthy fishery. The companies maintain that they can survive and prosper side by side.
“It’s our view that this project can coexist with the fisheries resources in Bristol Bay,” said Sean Magee, a spokesman for Northern Dynasty Minerals.