Her plane crossed an outsized territory of giant lakes and wild rivers, where moose and caribou roam grassy tundra and grizzly bears snatch fish from the waters.
“It was one of the first places I wanted to come, because I had to get a sense of not just the place, but the people,” McCarthy said.
The people who live in the watershed of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers are primarily Dena’ina Athabascans and Yup’ik Eskimos. They’re among the last cultures on the planet to still rely on wild salmon as a chief source of food.
The Yup’ik and Dena’ina of the area have traditionally considered the salmon as kin in a sacred web of life. They still practice a ceremony that pays homage to the first salmon caught in the spring and the renewal of their cycle of life.
“No amount of money or jobs can replace our way of life,” said William Evanoff, the president of the tribal council in Nondalton. “The threats are real.”
The project’s massive size might require a dam higher than the Washington Monument to hold waste for hundreds to thousands of years after the mine’s production is finished, the EPA said. Failure of the earthen dam or the pipeline carrying copper concentrate could poison salmon with acid-producing compounds or copper.
That’s in addition to the streams and 4,800 acres of wetlands the mine’s footprint would wipe out – even without a major accident, the EPA said. Pebble’s Shively said the EPA’s report involved inaccurate guesswork on what the mine would look like. He said it also ignored the ways miners could lessen the impact, such as creating new salmon habitat. Federal agencies should wait for the mine’s specifics, then judge the plan in the permitting process, he said.
Shively said potential damage the Pebble Mine could do was being exaggerated. It isn’t possible for Pebble to destroy the fishery, he said, and people should consider the opportunities the mine would create. Southwest Alaska is struggling, he said, and its residents need jobs if their villages are going to thrive.
“I have told people out there they need to be concerned. Obviously, this is a big project. But they also need to look at what we believe we can do,” Shively said.
The Pebble project suffered a blow this month when British mining giant Anglo American pulled out, saying it wanted to focus on lower-risk projects. Northern Dynasty Minerals said it was pressing on, though, expressing confidence that it can find a new partner for such a rich deposit.
EPA chief McCarthy said her agency would finish its assessment of the mine’s potential impact this year and then decide what to do. She said science would determine the project’s fate.
McCarthy was visibly moved during her visit as people in Dillingham told her the mine would kill wild salmon and destroy their culture. But there’s enormous pressure on the agency from congressional Republicans, who say the EPA shouldn’t block the mine, at least not until the developers have a chance to go for permits.
Adam Graf, an analyst for Cowen Securities in New York, said the mine’s potential was enormous. Pebble is forecast to boost America’s copper production by 20 percent.
“This is one of the largest copper resources in the world,” said Graf, who specializes in metals and mining. “It is a monster deposit any country would envy. The United States, and Alaska specifically, would benefit.”
But Ron Cohen, an associate professor at the Colorado School of Mines, said that potential came with significant risk.
“Here you are going to build a very large mining operation between two major tributaries that run right down to probably the finest, best-managed fishery in the world,” he said. “This is one of the last locations I would consider mining.”