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EPA Likely to Approve Mine That Threatens Alaska's Largest Salmon Nursery

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The Pile River flows into the northern end of Lake Iliamna. The lake and its tributaries are the headwaters of the Bristol Bay region, one of the richest salmon fisheries in the world. Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wrote a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers last week to say that it would not oppose or put a stop to a huge copper and gold mine near the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery, as The Washington Post reported.


The Pebble Mine, a vast copper and gold deposit, is worth an estimated $500 billion in natural resources. However, it is in the Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska, a resource that brings in $1.5 billion annually and provides a vital food source for thousands of Alaska Native residents who live there, according to PBS. An effort to build the mine at the heart of the Bristol Bay watershed has been an ongoing fight in Alaska.

The project was seemingly dead in 2012, but it got a new lease on life with the Trump administration when the Pebble Partnership filed for a permit with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in late 2017. The EPA has raised many concerns about the project, saying that it may result in substantial and unacceptable impacts to "aquatic resources of national importance," as Alaska Public Media reported.

In response, the Army Corps of Engineers announced what that the least damaging way to bring the ore out of the mine would be to take it out around the north side of Lake Iliamna, according to Alaska Public Media.

Christopher Hladick, the EPA's regional administrator for Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, wrote to the Alaska district engineer, Col. David Hibner, that the agency's serious concerns about the plan continued. He noted that the concerns include the fact that dredging for the open pit mine "may well contribute to the permanent loss of 2,292 acres of wetlands and ... 105.4 miles of streams," as The Washington Post reported.

The EPA will still have the authority to veto the project, but the latest letter makes it unlikely to do so.

Mark Ryan, a lawyer in private practice who served as regional counsel in EPA Region 10 between 1990 and 2014, told The Washington Post that the EPA's letter appears contradictory.

"It's a very odd letter," Ryan said. "It points out the mine's very serious environmental damage but then does not invoke EPA's powers to elevate the issue for further discussion."

"Today's decision ... gives us more reason to believe that there will be no veto," Pebble CEO Tom Collier said in a written statement, as Alaska Public Media reported. "This is consistent with our observation that (the Corps) and EPA, and the other cooperating agencies, have been working well together to resolve all outstanding issues."

Opponents of the project argue that the mine will damage the salmon, which are critical for the economy, for sustenance and for the region's cultural heritage.

"There are still many substantive issues with the project proposal that have yet to be resolved," said Daniel Cheyette, the vice president of Bristol Bay Native Corp., whose Alaska Native corporation opposes the mine, which would be the largest in North America, as The Washington Post reported.

While the Army Corps of Engineers has said the mine will have minimal impact on the salmon, environmental groups strongly disagree.

"It's about four times larger than the largest mine the EPA said that it was willing to consider for permitting," said Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council, to PBS. "The notion that the contaminants can be contained in any reliable fashion in that kind of environment has never been proven, never been tested, and in the judgment of virtually any independent scientist, simply can't be done."

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