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Pebble Mine: Buried for Good?
Tough EPA limits on mining in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed could finally spell doom for a misguided mining venture.

Today the Environmental Protection Agency announced severe restrictions on mining in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed, which supports nearly half of all the world’s sockeye salmon. The rules, if finalized, would be really bad news for efforts to build one of the world’s largest open-pit gold and copper mines in the Bristol Bay headwaters—and really good news for the wildlife, native communities, and fishermen that depend on those waters (see "What a Catch").

Don’t celebrate just yet—investors and their supporters in Congress are still fighting to keep the misguided mining project alive, including through lawsuits—but here’s why, if the EPA follows through on its proposal, Pebble is probably buried:

1. It’s already hemorrhaging investors.
Last September, one of the project’s original partners, international mining giant Anglo American, pulled out, saying Pebble Mine was now a bad investment (after years of pressure from opponents, including NRDC, which publishes OnEarth). In April, one of the biggest remaining investors, Rio Tinto, did the same. Northern Dynasty is the only company left in the so-called “Pebble Partnership,” which isn’t much of a partnership any longer.

2. It’s tough to mine when you can’t dump your waste.
The EPA restrictions proposed today would limit where Northern Dynasty could dig and dispose of rocks, keeping them out of the streams and wetlands that feed the Bristol Bay watershed. The EPA says that even a much smaller mine than the one the company describes in its Securities and Exchange Commission filings (Northern Dynasty hasn’t filed a permit application yet) would pose a significant threat.

“In simple terms,” the agency states, “the infrastructure necessary to mine the Pebble deposit jeopardizes the long-term health and sustainability of the Bristol Bay ecosystem.” The public has until September 19 to comment on the EPA rules.

3. The mine would ruin a critical ecosystem.
A peer-reviewed report published last January, three years after Alaskan tribes submitted a request, showed that a mine in Bristol Bay would destroy up to 94 miles of streams and 5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds, and lakes. Not only that, but the effects to those waterways would reverberate by preventing nutrients and water from reaching fish and waterways downstream.

4. The EPA says Bristol Bay is special … and it’s right.
Using its authority under the Clean Water Act, the EPA announced plans in February to review whether Pebble Mine could move forward, potentially preventing the Army Corps of Engineers from ever issuing a discharge permit. It’s a step the agency rarely takes. In fact, it has only restricted development 13 times before. “It’s just an extraordinary set of circumstances in Bristol Bay that really deserve this special type of consideration,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said at the time.

5. Pebble, nobody likes you!
Alaskan native tribes, commercial fishermen, and environmental groups, including Trout Unlimited and NRDC, have said they’re determined to continue fighting Pebble Mine until it’s dead, dead, dead. And public sentiment is with the enviros. When the EPA issued its 2012 draft report on the effects of mining near Bristol Bay, the agency reported that 98 percent of the 204,000 public comments it had received were in support of protecting the region.

So hey, Pebble Mine, listen up: you’re not welcome here. Government regulators are not going to roll over for you. And your own investors are fair-weather friends. Take the hint and just go away.

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image of Susan Cosier
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 ➔
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