The Environmental Protection Agency Friday proposed restrictions on a large copper-and-gold mine slated for a watershed in southwest Alaska that has pitted environmental groups against business regarding the EPA's authority to veto such projects.
At issue for the Pebble Mine near Bristol Bay's watershed is whether the EPA can veto a needed Clean Water Act permit. The proposal comes with a comment period that ends Sept. 19. If finalized, it could invite legal action from the mine's backers on an issue that has attracted the attention of congressional Republicans.
Republicans and industry say the EPA can't veto the project because the developer, Pebble LP, has not filed a formal blueprint. The House has held hearings on the project, and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee has subpoenaed the EPA for documents. Some Democrats, commercial fishermen, native tribes and environmental groups say it can because the EPA has an outline of the mine's parameters based on Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
"This is not a pre-emptive veto," Dennis McLerran, regional administrator for EPA Region 10, said in a media call in response to criticisms from industry and Republicans that the EPA was planning to reject the Clean Water Act permit even though Pebble LP hadn't yet submitted an application.
McLerran, speaking of the years-long delay by developers to file an application, said, "the amount of uncertainly that has hung over the Bristol Bay watershed is a consideration" in the step the agency outlined Friday.
But the EPA's parameters for allowing the mine to go forward could be a high bar.
The EPA said a mine could go forward so long as it doesn't destroy more than 1,100 acres of wetlands, ponds and lakes, five miles of streams with documented salmon, and 19 miles of streams that connect with salmon habitats or alter stream flow by more than 20 percent over a 9-mile or more stretch where fish occur.
The EPA based its restrictions off a mine 0.25 billion ton mine scenario. The smallest mine Northern Dynasty Minerals, which is taking the lead on the project, submitted to the SEC was 2 billion tons, the largest being 6 billion tons.
"EPA’s restrictions are based on the environmental impacts of the 0.25 billion ton mine plan we evaluated. If these restrictions are finalized, it would be up to the mine companies to determine if they could design and construct a mine with impacts below these restrictions," Hanady Kader, a spokeswoman with EPA Region 10, told the Washington Examiner when asked if a mine larger than 0.25 billion tons could pass the EPA's test.
The EPA said it used the SEC filings and others determine that the project would endanger the world's largest sockeye salmon run —accounting for almost half the world population — and disrupt the commercial fishing industry and the livelihoods of native tribes. It said the project, at seven square miles long and three-quarters of a mile deep, would be the largest open pit mine in North America.
"Bristol Bay is an extraordinary ecosystem that supports an ancient fishing culture and economic powerhouse,” . “The science is clear that mining the Pebble deposit would cause irreversible damage to one of the world’s last intact salmon ecosystems."
The mine's proponents a wary of a "pre-emptive" veto that they say could chill investment near waterways. Northern Dynasty has said it would use technology that doesn't harm the sockeye salmon population, though opponents found such claims dubious considering the years-long delay in submitting an application.
Congressional Republicans, especially the House, have kept the project in its sights.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Wednesday passed legislation that would prevent the EPA from issuing the so-called pre-emptive vetoes, along with retroactive ones -- a reference to a January 2011 decision to revoke a permit for a West Virginia mountaintop-removal mining operation, a controversial method that involves reaching coal seams by blasting peaks off mountains and pushing sediment into valleys where they can pollute water.
"I consider this regulatory overreach to be a fundamental property rights issue. With this new and broad interpretation of its powers, EPA is setting itself up as the ultimate manager of land use and economic development in the nation. This is an example of government that thinks it has no limitations on its power," Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, chairman of the panel's Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, said during a Tuesday hearing.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect the restrictions on mine development the EPA has proposed. An earlier version misstated them.