EPA moving to protect Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday it is moving to protect the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery, the largest in the world, under the Clean Water Act.

The agency’s actions, operating under the rarely used Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, could lead to a nearly unprecedented administrative veto of the proposed Pebble mine, planned to be the largest open-pit mine in North America.

EPA officials stressed that the fishery is an “extraordinary resource” that needs special protection but said there are several steps that must happen before there is any decision that might block the dam.

“This 404(c) process is not something, and I want to stress this, that the agency does very often but the Bristol Bay fishery is an extraordinary resource and it’s worthy of out-of-the-ordinary agency actions to protect it,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said Friday.

She said Pebble was “a unique mine in a very unique place” and that the decision to move ahead did not change EPA’s overall policies on mining or affect any other mine in Alaska.

Pebble would destroy a 7-square-mile section of a watershed that now is almost undisturbed, the EPA said.

A story in Friday’s Anchorage Daily News said half of the world’s sockeye salmon are produced in the Bristol Bay watershed with runs averaging 37.5 million fish a year.

Alaska Native groups, along with fishing and environmental organizations such as The Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Trout Unlimited, have consistently urged the EPA to exercise its authority to restrict the impact on water quality and fish and wildlife populations from dredge and fill material or other large-scale mining activities in the Bristol Bay watershed.

The EPA decision reflects the overwhelming opposition to the Pebble Mine. More than 850,000 of the estimated 1.1 million public comments received about the proposed mine request protection of the southwestern Alaska region.

McCarthy told reporters the EPA has initiated a review process under the Clean Water Act 29 times and issued restrictions 13 times.

The Anchorage Daily News story said supporters of the mine, including Pebble officials and Alaska’s Republican political leaders, among them Gov. Sean Parnell, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young, have called any hint of a preemptive veto as “federal overreach.”


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