In our January 2013 issue, contributing writer and professional forager Langdon Cook wrote an in-depth article on the development of North America’s largest open-pit mine, which is proposed for the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed. The project is headed by Vancouver, B.C.-based mining company Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., which had partnered with London mining giant Anglo-American to form The Pebble Partnership until Anglo-American pulled out last fall as scrutiny over the Pebble Mine heightened. Northern Dynasty’s interest in the region is rooted in an estimated $500 billion reserve of copper, molybdenum and gold found beneath the spawning habitat of the world’s most significant salmon population. Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon support a commercial fishery that accounts for a total of $500 million annually and employs 14,000 individuals, many of whom reside in the Puget Sound region.
Last May, at the only public hearing held outside of Alaska (Seattle was the chosen location since many Bristol Bay fishermen are home in Washington in May), commercial fishermen, sportsmen and tribal members voiced their overwhelming opposition to the mine. They urged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take heed of its initial assessments, which showed large-scale damage would be extremely likely if the mining operation were to be carried out, and thwart the proposed extraction operation before it developed any further. Meanwhile, Northern Dynasty had its legal team hard at work in an effort to downplay the environmental hazards and exaggerate the minimal potential for local employment.
On February 28, the EPA finally announced in a press release that it would invoke its legal power under part 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to block permitting of the mine while further impact assessment is conducted. The EPA has only invoked Sector 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to limit or halt a proposed development 13 times in its history, making the legal precedence of this case all the more significant. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said in a press conference following the decision, “The Bristol Bay fishery is an extraordinary resource, and it’s worthy of out-of-the-ordinary agency actions to protect it.” The block is a step in the right direction, though it’s not permanent, and further review by the EPA will decide the final outcome. So while its worthy of celebrating that a permit for development will not be issued, the future of Bristol Bay’s headwaters is still in doubt.