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Death Knell for Pebble Mine?
The EPA announces that it will review whether a monstrous mine near Alaska's Bristol Bay can go forward.

Today, the big news in Alaska came from Washington, D.C., where the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will review whether to block a large-scale mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery. Environmentalists, local tribes, and fishing companies that have opposed the mine and the serious threats it posed to a sensationally rich landscape are celebrating what is, essentially, a triumph that has been years in the making.

The EPA move won’t necessarily prevent the Canada-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. from digging a 186-square mile gold and copper mine in the area—but the review will cause significant delays and could end up killing the project all together.

"It’s the right step,” says Joel Reynolds, western director and senior attorney for NRDC (which publishes OnEarth), who has worked for years to stop the mine, “because the science is sound, because EPA’s legal authority is clear, and because the people of Bristol Bay, by overwhelming numbers, have demanded it.”

The EPA’s authority to prohibit or restrict mine construction comes under section 404 (c) of the Clean Water Act. The agency has invoked that authority less than 30 times, and used it to restrict development on just 13 projects. “It’s just an extraordinary set of circumstances in Bristol Bay that really deserve this special type of consideration,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said on a call with reporters. “The uniqueness of the watershed, the need for pristine water to support salmon, and the potential [development] of North America’s largest open-pit mine warrants a closer look on how and whether to use 404 (c) authority to protect the watershed.”

In order to now move forward with the proposed Pebble Mine construction, Northern Dynasty must get a “discharge permit” from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but that can’t happen until the EPA completes its review process (which may take a year).

Local tribes have been subsistence fishing in Bristol Bay—where all five Pacific salmon species can be found—for 4,000 years. The proposed Pebble Mine could destroy up to 94 miles of streams and 5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds, and lakes, and decimate the fishery in Bristol Bay, according to the agency’s own peer-reviewed scientific report published earlier this year. The EPA took three years to finalize the report, but the document offers clear evidence of the impact a mine could have on the region’s natural resources.

The next step will be a public comment period in which the Army Corps, state officials, and Northern Dynasty can provide any additional information they might have to cast a more positive light on the mine’s impact on the ecosystem and cultural way of life for the tribes. The EPA will then give a proposed determination, followed by another comment period, before the agency finalizes any restrictions on the mine’s development.

So while today’s news is not an immediate death knell for Pebble Mine, it may be a sign that this threat to one of the country’s pristine ecosystems may be fading away.

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Susan Cosier is OnEarth's Midwest correspondent. She previously worked at Audubon magazine, and has written for a number of science and environmental publications. She's a graduate of New York University's science journalism program. MORE STORIES ➔