WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday announced severe restrictions on the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska, a move that is likely to block a project the EPA said could devastate the best run of wild salmon left on the planet.
"The science is clear that mining the Pebble deposit would cause irreversible damage to one of the world's last intact salmon ecosystems," said Dennis McLerran, Northwest regional administrator for the EPA.
The proposed mine has become one of the country's biggest environmental controversies, with fishermen in Washington state and Alaska saying it could ruin their livelihoods.
The EPA said that, based on information the mine developer submitted to investors and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the pit of the proposed copper and gold mine could be nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon and produce waste that could fill a major football stadium 3,900 times.
The mining operation could cover an area bigger than Manhattan, the agency said.
The agency said its studies indicated the mine could wipe out nearly 100 miles of streams and 4,800 acres of wetlands even without a major accident.
The new restrictions announced by the EPA on Friday said the agency plans to forbid any discharges that would destroy five or more miles of salmon streams or 1,100 acres of connecting wetlands. The EPA proposal also would limit how much stream flow the mine activities could change.
The EPA said it will seek public comments until Sept. 19 before the new rules become final.
The restrictions would prevent the developer from building the size of mine it envisioned and are liable to mean the death of the controversial project.
U.S. Reps. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, and Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, hailed the EPA restrictions. Both had signed a letter asking the EPA to protect Bristol Bay and the salmon fishery.
The EPA's McLerran said it is up to the developer to see whether it can come up with a mine small enough to meet the new guidelines. He said the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers would consider any proposals, but he made it clear the agency will demand heavy protection for the Bristol Bay area.
"It is as close to a land before time as still exists in North America," McLerran said.
The mine developer said it was sorting through the implications of the EPA's decision and did not immediately have an answer for what it would mean.
"We have not yet seen EPA's proposal, so we will reserve further comments until we have had a chance to read and analyze it," said Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier.
Still, Collier said he was "outraged" that the agency announced the action while a court case and other challenges to the EPA's authority to act are ongoing.
"We will continue to fight this unprecedented action by the agency and are confident we will prevail," Collier said.
The developer is suing the EPA, arguing the agency doesn't have authority to take action under the Clean Water Act to restrict the mine before it applies for permits.
There is also a bill in Congress seeking to stop the EPA from pre-emptively vetoing the mine. Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Gibbs is pushing the bill, which the House Transportation Committee this week voted to move forward.
"It's un-American to tell a private company or anybody that you can't even apply for a permit, cannot even consider doing any operations on this land because the government has blocked it out," Gibbs said.
The EPA said it began looking into the mine at the request of Alaska tribes and others concerned about the salmon. Mine advocates claim the agency was biased and that agency staffers themselves initiated the effort to block the project. The EPA's inspector general is investigating those allegations.
All the controversy already has taken a huge toll on the mine effort. Two major international mining companies have dropped out of the project, leaving the remaining company, Northern Dynasty Minerals of Canada, scrambling to find a new partner to provide the needed financial backing.
Environmental groups, Alaska Natives opposed to the project, and even jewelers on Friday praised the EPA's decision to restrict the giant copper and gold mine.
"As a jeweler whose business depends on precious metals, and therefore mining, we have nevertheless long opposed the development of new mines that threaten areas of high ecological and cultural value," Tiffany & Co. chairman Michael J. Kowalski said in a written statement. "We applaud the EPA for taking this vital next step under the Clean Water Act to safeguard Bristol Bay and the communities and fishery it supports."