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Some hope the EPA will veto Pebble Mine, a project that has long divided SW Alaska


What would be one of the largest copper and gold mines in the world might never break ground. The EPA is expected to issue its final decision at the end of the month on the Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska. From member station KDLG, Izzy Ross reports.

IZZY ROSS, BYLINE: The sun is just starting to rise at 9 a.m. in Igiugig, a village of about 70 people on the Kvichak River in the Bristol Bay region.


ROSS: Yup'ik, Dena'ina and Alutiiq peoples have lived here for thousands of years.


ROSS: Christina Salmon is walking to her job at the village council.

CHRISTINA SALMON: The sunlight is coming back, and I couldn't be happier (laughter).

ROSS: Salmon has spent years fighting the development of the Pebble Mine, which would be built about 40 miles from the village. Last month, she got the news she was hoping for - the EPA recommended a ban on mining activities at the site - not just those described in a permit application that Pebble Company is pursuing but any similar mining there. If the EPA finalizes that decision at the end of the month, it would effectively kill the mine.

SALMON: I'm almost on the edge of being able to relax again. We've just wasted so much of our life fighting Pebble.

ROSS: The EPA is exercising a rarely-used authority under the Clean Water Act, commonly called its veto authority. Agency officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a statement said the mine could harm fish spawning and breeding areas and that this action would protect the commercial and sport fisheries and a traditional way of life based on wild salmon. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied Pebble's mining permit two years ago, but the company appealed that decision. Pebble spokesperson Mike Heatwole says the EPA is not following normal protocol by using this Clean Water Act authority before the appeal has even been processed.

MIKE HEATWOLE: We continue to say that it is largely unlawful and unprecedented, what the EPA is attempting to do regarding this project.

ROSS: And Heatwole says the company may sue. But the EPA's use of this authority reflects its serious concerns about the mine's impact on the region, says Joel Reynolds with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

JOEL REYNOLDS: It's about as much opposition as one will ever see to a development project anywhere really but in particular, in a development-friendly state like Alaska.

ROSS: Many who want the mine to come understand the opposition to it, but they say the economic future of the region is at stake.

GEORGE HORNBERGER: I think the EPA should butt out, quite frankly, and let the process continue.

ROSS: George Hornberger runs the electrical utility in Newhalen, one of the communities closest to the proposed mine site.

HORNBERGER: If it's not that, then tell me your plan for this area. What is your plan to bring economy into this area and give people a reason to stay here?

JOANNE WASSILLIE: We saw a really positive change when our people were working.

ROSS: Joanne Wassillie is the Newhalen Tribal Council administrator. Wassillie believes Pebble can develop the mine safely. And she says earlier, when Pebble was exploring the site to see if a mine was viable, the company provided people with good-paying jobs.

WASSILLIE: And then it seems like as soon as they quit working, we started noticing a lot more, kind of, like, depression, no jobs, more alcohol and drug-related activities happening.

ROSS: Wassillie says the prospect of good jobs would give people the ability to stay in the place they love. For NPR News, I'm Izzy Ross in Newhalen, Alaska.


And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Isabelle Ross

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