The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, proposed Wednesday to remove restrictions for the planned Pebble Mine Project in the pristine southwest region of Bristol Bay, Alaska — a decision that could threaten the livelihoods of an estimated 31 native villages in the region.
Native Alaskans, environmentalists, fishing operators and local businesses have been protesting the extraction project through civil lawsuits and campaigns since 2004, when the Northern Dynasty Minerals, the Canada-based company behind Pebble Mines corporation first began exploring the area to set up a large copper and gold mine.
The EPA had imposed restrictions as part of the Clean Water Act of 2014, after measuring the impact of the mining project.
The agency had said at the time that the mine could potentially destroy up to 94 miles of salmon-supporting streams and thousands of acres of wetlands, ponds and lakes.
The Bristol Bay supports all five species of Pacific salmon found in North America, which include sockeye, Chinook, chum, coho and pink salmon. It is also home to bears, moose and caribou.
"Polluted water from the mine site could enter streams, causing widespread damage in a region that produces nearly 50 percent of the world's wild sockeye salmon," the EPA had said, according to Yahoo News.
The 2014 EPA Assessment of the project noted, "The predominant Alaska Native cultures present in the Nushagak and Kvichak River watersheds — the Yup’ik and Dena’ina — are two of the last intact, sustainable, salmon-based cultures in the world."
"In the Bristol Bay watershed, this connection has been maintained for at least 4,000 years and is in part both due to and responsible for the continued undisturbed condition of the region’s landscape and biological resources."
"This subsistence-based way of life is a key element of Alaska Native identity and serves a wide range of economic, social, and cultural functions in Yup’ik and Dena’ina societies."
Stop Pebble Mine, one of the campaigns that helped keep the mining project at bay, argue the project could transform the pristine region into a “lake of toxic waste.”
In a statement online, the organization claimed: "The folks at Pebble Mine have offered a handful of local jobs for 50 years. Fifty years of employment, and then Bristol Bay is left with a hole in the Earth over a mile wide and a lake of toxic waste. The companies are based in London and Canada. So while they line their pockets with gold, the United States loses one of its national treasures."
The campaigners worry the project could lead to “cultural genocide,” by polluting the crucial waterways.
"There is no way for the Pebble Partnership to assure an infinite watch on their toxic waste. When this poison gets into our streams it will force people to relocate," the statement added.
Other environmental organizations, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, have also condemned EPA's move.
“EPA’s proposed withdrawal is an outrageous capitulation to mining interests at the expense of the American people and our economy,” the NRDC wrote in an online statement.
With an estimated 57 billion pounds of copper and 70 million ounces of gold resources Pebble is deemed to be world's largest undeveloped copper and gold resource.
Raul Grijalva, the Democratic ranking member of the House Natural Resource Committee, said in a statement, "The Trump administration should listen to the more than 65 percent of Alaskans, 80 percent of Bristol Bay residents and native communities, and 85 percent of commercial fishermen who oppose Pebble Mine."