The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking the first steps toward possibly restricting or even prohibiting development of a massive gold-and-copper prospect near the headwaters of a world-premier sockeye salmon fishery in southwest Alaska.

The EPA says it will use section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to assess the effects of mining the Pebble deposit. The agency will use the act to review "potential adverse environmental effects of discharges of dredged and fill material associated with mining the Pebble deposit."

The review is due to the EPA's stated belief that "copper mining of the scale contemplated at the Pebble deposit would result in significant and unacceptable adverse effects to important fishery areas in the watershed."

A release from EPA on Friday says the review will only assess the effects of the proposed Pebble Mine and "will not consider other mining or non-mining related development in the watershed."

Permits would not be issued during the roughly year-long review process, EPA officials said.

If the EPA’s review finds Pebble’s mining discharges “unacceptable” under the act, the EPA will “determine whether and how to establish restrictions to protect” the watershed from “adverse effects.”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said Friday that the Clean Water Act review is something the EPA “doesn’t do often, but Bristol Bay is worthy of extraordinary agency actions to protect it.”

McCarthy said the EPA has initiated a Clean Water Act review 29 times in the past, and 13 times the review has resulted in restrictions.

The federal agency will ask the state and those behind the proposed Pebble Mine to make their case for the project during the four stages of the CWA 404(c) review. Those stages would begin with a consultation with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers starting on Friday. The second stage of the review a publication of proposals and potential restrictions and a public comment period. Stage three will be a review of the public testimony and a development of a “determination” by EPA. The final stage of the process would end with a second consultation with the Army Corps and site owners, and a “final determination” of any prohibitions or restrictions on mining the Pebble deposit.

An EPA report, released in January, found large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed posed significant risk to salmon.
The action announced Friday is what Pebble supporters have feared. Mine opponents have urged EPA to take steps to protect the region.
McCarthy says her agency is exercising its authority to ensure protection of the fishery from risks it faces "from what could be one of the largest open pit mines on earth."

This is a developing story. Watch Channel 2 broadcasts and check for updates.