The company that wants to build a copper and gold mine near a major Alaska salmon fishery should receive strict scrutiny because of the fishery's cultural and economic importance, a regional U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official said Wednesday.
Chris Hladick, whose four-state region includes Alaska, said the EPA will seek to have protections it believes are necessary included in the permit being sought by the Pebble Limited Partnership for the Pebble Mine project, in Alaska's Bristol Bay region. But he could not say how the EPA process ultimately will play out.
Commercial fishing is a big industry in Alaska. "Obviously, anything that could impact that is huge," Hladick, a former state commerce commissioner, said in a phone interview during a visit to the state Wednesday.
About half of the world's sockeye salmon is produced by Bristol Bay, according to the EPA.
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The EPA plans to seek public comment on whether it should take additional steps under the federal Clean Water Act to prevent "unacceptable adverse effects" in the Bristol Bay region. The timetable for doing so hasn't been announced.
Last year, in a legal settlement with the Pebble partnership, the EPA agreed to initiate a process to withdraw restrictions on development proposed during the Obama administration. But the agency halted those withdrawal plans last month.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said based on comments the EPA received, that "any mining projects in the region likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there."
He said until the full extent of risk is known, "those natural resources and world-class fisheries deserve the utmost protection."
More than one million comments were submitted on the EPA's proposal. It said the "overwhelming majority" opposed lifting the proposed restrictions.
During public hearings in the Bristol Bay region, most people opposed lifting the proposed restrictions, the agency said.
The Pebble partnership has filed a permit application with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which plans to conduct an environmental review.
The settlement agreement stipulates that a decision by the EPA on whether to pursue restrictions or prohibitions on development activity may not be made before May 11, 2021, or until the environmental review is completed, whichever is earlier.
Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for the Pebble partnership, said by email that Pebble is focused on working through the permitting process, which he said will include "a lot of give and take" between Pebble and regulators.