A dispute over a proposed copper and gold mine near Alaska’s Bristol Bay may be one of the most important environmental decisions of President Obama’s second term — yet few are even aware that the fight is happening.
At issue is a proposed mining operation in a remote area that is home to several Alaskan native tribes and nearly half of the world’s sockeye salmon. Six tribes have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to invoke its powers under the Clean Water Act to block the mine on the grounds that it would harm the region’s waterways, fish and wildlife.
The two mining firms behind the project, Northern Dynasty and Anglo American, have struck back with a major lobbying and public-relations campaign aimed at derailing any EPA intervention.
The Bristol Bay dispute has been largely overshadowed by the high-profile battle over the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, which has prompted strong opposition from environmental groups and which requires approval from the State Department to proceed.
Environmentalists argue that the Bristol Bay project poses a serious threat to the area’s delicate ecosystem and to the local fishing industry. Fishing businesses and tribal leaders, who have often quarreled, have banded together to oppose it.
“If we don’t protect this, we’ll have nothing to fight over in the future,” said Peter Andrew Jr., a board member of the Bristol Bay Native Corp. “This is the last place on Earth like this.”
The Bristol Bay project would rank as the largest mine in North America if constructed and could eventually produce 80 billion pounds of copper, 107 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum.
In an early environmental assessment, the EPA estimates the mine would probably cause the loss of between 54 and 89 miles of streams and between four and seven square miles of wetlands. Any accidents, the assessment continued, could result “in immediate, severe impacts on salmon and detrimental, long-term impacts on salmon habitat.”
On Friday, the EPA extended the time for public comments on the impact of the project until June 30. [++]