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The Newhalen River is one of numerous waterways that would be affected by the  proposed Pebble Mine.

The Newhalen River is one of numerous waterways that would be affected by the proposed Pebble Mine.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL MELFORD, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published February 28, 2014

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials on Friday put on hold plans for a massive open-pit copper mine in Alaska, invoking Clean Water Act rules. (Related: "Alaska's Clash Over Salmon and Gold Goes National.")

Requested by EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, the delay aims "to protect the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery in Bristol Bay, Alaska," the agency said in a statement.

Such a Clean Water Act hold on mining, invoked only 13 times previously by the agency, means the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cannot approve a permit for the proposed Pebble Mine, which the agency says would foul streams feeding into the bay, the fishery for half the world's wild salmon.

"Extensive scientific study has given us ample reason to believe that the Pebble Mine would likely have significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries," McCarthy said.

Unspoiled Bay

Bristol Bay is located about 250 miles (400 kilometers) southwest of Anchorage, home to the world's largest population of wild salmon. (See pictures of Pacific salmon in National Geographic magazine.)

In the upper streams of their spawning grounds, near Iliamna Lake (map), are ore deposits containing about 80 billion pounds (36 billion kilograms) of copper and 110 million ounces (3 million kilograms) of gold where the mine would be located.

Tom Collier, the head of the Pebble Limited Partnership—a combination of Northern Dynasty Minerals, of British Columbia, and Anglo American, an international conglomerate headquartered in London—released a statement on the Friday decision, saying "The EPA's actions today are an unprecedented federal action and reflect a major overreach onto an asset of the State of Alaska."

"The steps taken by the EPA to date have gone well outside of its normal practice, have been biased throughout, and have been unduly influenced by environmental advocacy organizations," Collier added, in the statement.

Proposed Mine

The proposed mine would include a pit up to 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) wide and 1,700 feet (520 meters) deep, mines, a mill, and tailings ponds. The Partnership had promised that serious environmental effects would not result from the mine.

In the January assessment, however, the EPA had concluded it "would likely cause irreversible destruction of streams that support salmon and other important fish species, as well as extensive areas of wetlands, ponds and lakes."

Several Native American tribes had requested the EPA halt permits for the mine, warning of danger to the bay.

"This is one of the few places left on Earth where nature works as it should, and it's a breadbasket for the world, supplying literally hundreds of thousands of people with wild salmon," said Chris Wood, head of the Trout Unlimited sportsman's organization.

"If the EPA follows the science and follows through on this, it will rank as one of the most significant conservation achievements of the past 50 years," Wood said in a statement.

Clean Water Act regulations mean the decision kicks off a review process, conducted in consultation with the Corps of Engineers, aimed at eventually restricting mining activities that might impair the water quality of Bristol Bay.

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

9 comments
robin poole
robin poole

Hot damn!  Lets hope they can make it stick.  I've been going up to the Lake Iliamna  area for the last 20 years or so to fish for trout and salmon./fantastic fishing and scenery.  The last thing they need is a bloody mine up there.  To properly service it they would have to build roads etc. in a road less area. Now the only way to get into most of the wilderness Is by float plan, parachute or foot.  Wilderness is a lot like virginity...once you loose it there ain't no getting it back. Go EPA

Blaine Paul Biedermann
Blaine Paul Biedermann

Thank you!  Everywhere I travel in Alaska - and indeed all across the country - I see the "Pebble Slash" symbol.  Natives don't want it, fishermen don't want it; we don't need it.  The gold and copper aren't going anywhere because they are not alive.  However, the landscape is alive and to continue living it needs the gold and copper right where they are.  Good job, EPA.

Leanne Hennessey Roulson
Leanne Hennessey Roulson

A good move. Thank you EPA. Regulation and cautious conservation are reasonable (not extremist) things in an area like Bristol Bay.

Glenn Johnson
Glenn Johnson

You have to remember we are human and its in our nature to make a mistake and a mistake in this area would be disastrous.  Lets take a minute and look around: we have petroleum flowing over our lands waiting to break open and pollute our lands. we have companies jetting water into old petroleum wells and forcing up gas poisoning  our lands and our people.


I applaud EPA for their standing, but we all know that the rules that EPA lives by changes with the wind, because of greedy politicians and millionaires.


I would love for my children's children to see Alaska as one of the last Beautiful wilderness areas in the world.   not a polluted dug up state.   


KENNETH LANE
KENNETH LANE

I had recently heard of the latest attack upon the Clean Water Act by Rightwing Republican traiotrs to the planet----------this explains why.  Turn over enough rocks when looking into destruction of our planet by Corporations and you find Republican Rightwingers squirming away from the light of day-----------

D. Kirby
D. Kirby

Damned bloody good for the EPA, for a change!

Joe G.
Joe G.

Lets hope that no mine is dug. I enjoy salmon and nature.


Alanna Parker
Alanna Parker

Collier, take a hike, stay in your own country and screw off! Is there anywhere that the human race can not just leave alone! It's pristine and beautiful. It's all about lining your pockets with know regard for anything but your own greedy little hands. I hope the EPA follows through and wins this and draws a line in the sand. So tired of hearing these horrible stories of how we just keep using up the earth!

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