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EPA deems Alaska copper mine harmful to local ecosystem

May 08, 2013
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Copper mine
According to EPA estimates, a mining operation similar to plans to dig the large open-pit Pebble Mine at Alaska's Bristol Bay region could destroy up to 90 miles of salmon and trout spawning stream.

Digging a new mine in southwest Alaska would have a detrimental effect on the local ecosystem, according to a new report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA estimated that a mining operation similar to plans to dig the large open-pit Pebble Mine at Alaska's Bristol Bay region could destroy up to 90 miles of salmon and trout spawning streams and cause damage to wetlands that support fish in the area. In addition, the agency warned that local waterways would be exposed to chemical spills and untreated wastewater discharge.

The projected Pebble copper mine is at a hypothetical stage at present, as developers have still not applied for a permit, but the EPA report might prevent the plans from going any further. The Pebble deposit contains the largest undeveloped copper reserve in the world, with an estimated 80 billion pounds of copper, 100 million ounces of gold and 5.5 billion pounds of molybdenum, worth well over $500 billion to the economy.

According to Reuters, EPA analysts did not specifically look into the Pebble Mine plans but investigated the impact on the ecosystem in a similar environment.

John Shively, president of developer Pebble Limited Partnership, claimed that the report was a waste of public money and was "flawed." He argued that imposing a "pre-emptive veto" on the plans was unreasonable before the plans for the mine have been finalized. The decision of the EPA would not only block the development of a particular mine in Alaska, but would also damage the entire U.S. economy, he added.

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The report follows a previous draft assessment which also concluded that mining operations would be harmful to streams and wetlands, but the latest version offers more detail on the negative impact that could be expected from infrastructural projects associated with the mine, including culverts, roads, traffic accidents and other industrialization processes.

According to Dennis McLarren, Pacific Northwest regional director of the EPA, the agency has still not made a final decision whether it would use its power to ban the Pebble Mine plans but he stated that findings from the report would be used when deciding on Bristol Bay protective measures. The agency is trying to gain a better understanding of the fragile ecological balance that has contributed to the evolution of the unique wildlife in Bristol Bay and will investigate the risks that a potential mine development in the area would pose to it, he told Reuters.

So far developers have invested $680 million in the Pebble Mine project and will spend a further $80 million by the end of 2013, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd, which co-owns the mine project with Anglo American, announced recently. However, the latest report from the EPA might mean a change of plan for the two companies.

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