(CNN)A mining company announced on Thursday that it is proceeding with plans to build an Alaskan gold and copper mine, which critics say threatens to pollute the home of the world's largest wild sockeye salmon population.
Company seeks approval to mine near Alaskan salmon fishery
Northern Dynasty Minerals said it would file on Friday to begin the permit process to develop the controversial project, known as Pebble Mine.
The move was made possible after Environmental Protection Agency director Scott Pruitt removed special protections that were placed on the Bristol Bay watershed during the Obama administration. Canadian-based Northern Dynasty, parent company of Pebble Limited Partnership, acknowledged it was the withdrawal of the EPA's protection under the Clean Water Act that has allowed the mine permit process to move forward.
Initial plans for the gold and copper mine to be built in the Bristol Bay watershed were extremely controversial, resulting in a yearslong environmental study by the EPA.
In 2014, after three years of peer-reviewed study, the Obama administration's EPA invoked a rarely used provision of the Clean Water Act to place major restrictions on a mine in the Bristol Bay watershed. The decision came after scientists found that a mine "would result in complete loss of fish habitat due to elimination, dewatering, and fragmentation of streams, wetlands, and other aquatic resources" in some areas of the bay. "All of these losses would be irreversible," the agency said.
But just months after being sworn in as Donald Trump's director of the EPA, Pruitt reversed the special protections imposed under Obama. CNN reported in September that the reversal took place within hours after Pruitt met with Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier, and without consultation from the EPA scientists who worked on the Bristol Bay environmental review.
The area is regarded as one of the world's most important salmon fisheries, producing nearly half the world's annual sockeye salmon catch. Its ecological resources support 4,000-year-old indigenous cultures, as well as about 14,000 full- and part-time jobs, according to the EPA's 2014 report.
Now that Pruitt has rescinded the special plan to protect the area, Pebble has announced that on Friday it will submit plans to mine there to the US Army Corps of Engineers. The mine proposal will still have to pass a rigorous EPA and Army Corps of Engineers permitting process to move ahead.
"We are very pleased to move the Pebble Project forward to the next important phase by initiating the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) permitting process this year, as we committed to do," Collier said in today's news release.
According to the release, the new proposed mine will be smaller than originally planned, will operate outside a fragile Upper Talarik watershed to lessen impact on local salmon fisheries, and will explore the use of a ferry system to minimize the construction of roads across rivers and streams.
"The project design we're taking into permitting includes a substantially reduced development footprint and meaningful new environmental safeguards that respond directly to the priorities and concerns we've heard from stakeholders in Alaska," Collier added in the release. "Not only are we confident that Pebble as currently envisaged will secure development permits from federal, state and local regulatory agencies, we are confident it will coexist with the world class fisheries of Bristol Bay and earn the support of the people of the region and the state."
Several environmental groups, Alaskan fisheries organizations, and some native tribes have opposed any plans to develop Pebble Mine, fearing even a reduced version could have significant impact on the sockeye salmon population. The current plan would affect 5.7 square miles of Alaskan wilderness and require more than 65 miles of new roadway, according to Pebble Limited Partnership.
Joel Reynolds, western director of the Natural Resources Defense Council and director of its Campaign to Stop the Pebble Mine, said in a statement that the group still opposes the project.
"There is simply no way to ensure protection of the world's greatest wild salmon ecosystem -- producing 60 million fish this year alone -- from contamination caused by a toxic open pit copper and gold mine in its pristine headwaters," Reynolds said. "For as long as it takes, we will fight to defend this eternal food source from what EPA scientists have already concluded is unavoidable and potentially catastrophic harm."
The expected application filing Friday will put in motion a permitting process expected to take months. The US Army Corps of Engineers Regional Regulatory Program Director, Sheila Newman, told CNN that while the Corps has yet to see the actual proposal, the scope of the project means that it will "most likely require a full environmental impact study," which would include publishing the proposal for public review.