SEATTLE — The Environmental Protection Agency is warning that plans for a massive mine in the hills above Bristol Bay in Alaska — home of the biggest sockeye salmon fishery in the world — could have devastating consequences for rivers and streams and wipe out habitat for fish.
A study that represents the federal government’s first significant scientific assessment of the proposed Pebble Mine site concludes that extracting billions of pounds of gold, copper and molybdenum from the region could result in the direct loss of up to 87 miles of streams and nearly 7 square miles of wetlands.
“We conclude that, at a minimum, mining at this scale would cause the loss of spawning and rearing habitat for multiple species of anadromous and resident fish,” according to the EPA watershed assessment released Friday. Anadromous fish are those that swim up rivers to spawn, such as salmon.
The EPA report, even before its release, touched off a political firestorm, with Alaska’s Republican administration warning that the agency had no authority to conduct the assessment.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, questioned the EPA’s authority to regulate the proposed mine and issued a demand for the documents, sources and communications the agency used in preparing its findings.
The query makes it clear there will be a tough political fight over the mine, not only within the Obama administration, but in Congress, where Republicans have long been gunning for the EPA.
The main controversy at the moment centers on which federal agency has chief jurisdiction over granting a permit for the mine.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issues dredging and filling permits for mines, and generally is inclined to approve them. But EPA regulations under the Clean Water Act give the agency the authority — hotly disputed — to veto discharges of dredged or fill material if it would adversely affect municipal water supplies, shellfish beds or fisheries.
The regulations say the agency can issue the veto even in cases — such as the Pebble Mine site — where no permit has been applied for.
Presumably, the watershed assessment could be a first step in determining such a veto, which is one reason the Alaska attorney general, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and others have questioned the EPA about preparing it.
“I remain concerned that an attempt to pre-emptively veto the Pebble Mine would have the practical effect of halting any development in the Bristol Bay area that might generate dredge or fill material,” Murkowski wrote in a recent letter. “It remains unclear to me how dredge or fill material from a mining operation might be substantively different from dredge or fill material generated from any other form of development.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., whose district includes many of the biggest fishing companies that operate in Bristol Bay, has supported the EPA’s work.
“The watershed assessment … is an important step towards protecting wild Bristol Bay salmon and the thousands of Washington state jobs that rely on them,” she said in a statement.
The Pebble Limited Partnership, a consortium of developers of the proposed mine, said it had budgeted $107 million to conduct further studies and prepare a permit application for the proposed mine. Agency officials said they had made no decision about what action, if any, the EPA would take on any proposed mine permit.
Opponents of the mine said the watershed assessment, which is only a draft and will now be presented at public hearings for comment through July 23, was a good first step.
“This document gave us some historical and scientific perspective upon which to make decisions,” said Tim Bristol of Trout Unlimited in Alaska. “Until now, no one in Alaska has been willing to listen to people in Bristol Bay about what they want.”