Judge Orders EPA to Halt All Work on Pebble Mine

In a ruling issued Thursday in Anchorage, a federal judge ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to cease all work pertaining to its investigation of whether to block development of Alaska’s controversial Pebble Mine. The order, dated December 4, was in the form of a Case Status update that clarified the terms of a preliminary injunction issued by the same judge, H. Russel Holland, Senior Judge for the US District Court in Alaska, on November 24.  

The preliminary injunction pertained to a lawsuit filed by the Pebble Limited Partnership against the EPA, alleging that the EPA had used an anti-mine team of experts during its study of the Bristol Bay watershed, thereby prejudicing the process towards what the mining company has called a “pre-emptive veto” of the as yet undeveloped mine. The EPA had begun a multi-step process whereby, under powers granted it by Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, it may prohibit dredge and fill activities that would have “unacceptable adverse effects” on fishery areas. The injunction ruled in Pebble’s favor, seeing enough merit in the lawsuit to ask EPA to pause its process; it also requested amendments and clarifications to Pebble’s complaint.

Following the injunction, there was some disagreement over whether the EPA could continue work on the 404(c) process while Pebble revised its complaint and EPA prepared a response. The Pebble Partnership believed all work should cease, while the EPA maintained that they could continue internal work on the process.

Judge Holland sided with Pebble: “Defendants may not,” he wrote, “engage in any activities related to the 404(c) process.” In addition, the order lays out a timetable for moving forward: Pebble will submit an amended complaint by December 19; EPA will file its motion to dismiss by January 23, 2015; Pebble will respond by February 17, followed by another EPA response by March 6, and a hearing to follow.

In a statement, the EPA reiterated that the injunction was only preliminary and that the court had not yet made a ruling. “EPA is complying with the preliminary injunction as set forth in the court's Dec. 4 update,” the statement says. “We are pleased the court set a swift schedule to move forward. We are confident in our case and look forward to a prompt resolution.”

The injunction is the latest chapter in the now decade-long fight over development of the controversial mine. The Pebble deposit, a low-grade copper and gold deposit worth potentially hundreds of billions of dollars, sits amid spawning grounds that feed the legendary Bristol Bay salmon run. It has been the target of a years-long effort by a consortium of Native groups, commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, conservation groups, and other Bristol Bay stakeholders to halt its development.

The EPA’s involvement in Bristol Bay dates back to 2010, when a number of Bristol Bay Native groups and other stakeholders petitioned the agency to take action under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to protect the Bristol Bay watershed from the perceived threat of the proposed Pebble Mine. The Agency undertook a three-year study of Bristol Bay, eventually releasing its peer-reviewed Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment in January of this year. In February, it issued notice of its intent to propose protections for Bristol Bay, and in July, it issued the proposal and initiated a public comment period that ended in September. The next phase of the process would be to either recommend moving forward with protection for Bristol Bay or withdrawing the proposal.

The EPA’s “veto” power under Section 404(c) has been infrequently invoked: the process has been initiated only 30 times in the 42 years of the Clean Water Act’s existence, with only 13 of those processes leading to final determinations to block a permit. In the case of Pebble and Bristol Bay, the agency argued, their study showed that such action was merited.

In response, Pebble soon filed three lawsuits. The preliminary injunction remains silent on two of them but saw enough merit in one to call a halt. In a statement issued last week after the preliminary injunction was announced, Pebble CEO Tom Collier called it an important “procedural victory.”

“This means that for the first time EPA’s march to preemptively veto Pebble has been halted,” he said in the statement. “Last,” Collier’s statement concluded, “one criterion that must be met as a prerequisite for a Preliminary Injunction is that we have a ‘likelihood of success on the merits.’ EPA argued strongly that we could not meet that test. The court disagreed and granted the Preliminary Injunction.”

The EPA noted when the preliminary injunction was announced that it is just that—preliminary—and does not represent a decision. “EPA is waiting to see the court’s written order on the preliminary injunction,” the Agency said in a statement at the time. “EPA hopes the litigation is resolved expeditiously so the agency can move forward with its regulatory decision-making.”

And while the injunction represents a rare win for Pebble, the mine’s future prospects remain murky. Beyond the open question of how these suits are eventually decided, the Pebble Partnership currently has no backer after multinational mining company Anglo American pulled out of the project in 2013, followed by Rio Tinto’s divestment of its 19% stake in April of this year, leaving Northern Dynasty, the junior partner, as sole owner. Northern Dynasty has neither the money nor the capacity to develop the mine itself. Adding to the problems, in a statewide referendum on the November ballot, 65% of Alaskan voters approved the so-called Bristol Bay Forever Initiative, which gives the state legislature veto power over Pebble, taking it out of the hands of the state and federal agencies, including the EPA, that usually handle mining permits.

(A version of this story also appears on The Huffington Post.)

Feds Crack Down on AK Mining Co in Clean Water Act Indictment

I had an advance tip on an interesting indictment coming out of Alaska, where a Platinum mining company trying to re-process the detritis of decades-worth of mining near remote Goodnews Bay had been polluting the Salmon River with compolete disregard for the environmental impacts or the requirements of its mining permits. From my HuffPo piece:

In a first for extraction-friendly Alaska, the Department of Justice last week announced an indictment against mining company XS Platinum, Inc. (XSP), and five of its officers and employees. The XSP executives stand accused of five felony counts centered on a conspiracy to knowingly dump mine waste into Southwest Alaska's Salmon River, a violation of the Clean Water Act. Further, according to the indictment, they deliberately misled regulators and submitted false statements to hide the pollution that they knew was occurring. The indictment is also noteworthy because XSP marketed itself as a "sustainable" mine that would get its platinum from mining waste rather than fresh excavation, and, as such, signed a contract with Tiffany & Co, which has positioned itself as a leader in responsible mining by signing on to a "No Dirty Gold" campaign directed at another Alaska mine.

"This is the first criminal indictment of a mining company for federal Clean Water Act charges in Alaska," said Kevin Feldis, First Assistant United States Attorney for Alaska. "This is part of our ongoing commitment to aggressively enforcing environmental law in Alaska."

The 28-page indictment centers on alleged criminal activity that occurred primarily in 2010 and 2011 on public lands around remote Goodnews Bay, where XSP's Platinum Creek Mine operated from 2008 to 2012. It's the culmination of a cooperative investigation involving a number of federal and state agencies and led by the EPA's Criminal Investigation Division and the BLM's Office of Law Enforcement and Security. They began building the case in 2011, shortly after XSP was initially cited for violations by the Alaska Department of Environmental Control.

The indictment names the company's top three officers, Chairman and CEO Bruce Butcher, 59, and Director and Executive VP Mark Balfour, 62, both Australian, and both Australian corporate attorneys; and James Slade, 57, a Canadian mining executive who served as Chief Operating Officer. In addition, Robert Pate, 62, an American geologist who was the mine's general manager and James Staeheli, 43, an American and a manager at the mine, were also indicted. All five of the men were charged with violating the permit and conspiring to cover up the violations, and all but Staeheli also face the charge of submitting a false statement.

XSP's holdings consisted of nearly 200 mining claims spread across more than 4,000 acres, mostly clustered around the Salmon River just upstream from where it flows through the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge and empties into the Pacific in Kuskowim Bay. The Salmon, like other rivers in the area, is an essential spawning habitat for all five species of Pacific salmon. The vast majority of the mining claims are on land managed by the BLM, while a small number of undeveloped claims lie within the Togiak Refuge.

XSP's plan was to reprocess the scrapheaps left over from the Goodnews Bay Mining Company's platinum mine (1937-1979) and extract residual platinum from the 45 million tons of tailings--mine waste--left behind over the decades it had been in operation. The company said it would do this all on a "zero-discharge" basis, filtering and reusing the massive amounts of wastewater created by the reprocessing, and thereby protecting the surrounding natural resources.

Click over to the Huffington Post to read the rest of my piece.

Pebble vs. EPA gets the Fox News Treatement

It's no secret that politicians on the right aren't particularly fond of the EPA, viewing it as an overreaching, industry-hobbling agent of Big Government, and it's proven a particularly attractive bogeyman for right-leaning media outlets.

So it should come as no surprise that they found cause for celebration in the recent temporary injunction stopping EPA's work to block the controversial Pebble Mine. Fox News latched onto the ongoing investigation over lost EPA emails in addition to the injunction, and capped it all off with a quote from Rep. Don Young (R-AK) who was predictably anti-federal and proprietary. "Allowing a federal agency to have this control over private land is a taking," Rep. Young said, even though Pebble sits on public land owned by the state. "And they can argue all they want about this, [but] this is really a taking." Full clip: 

It should be noted that many of Pebble's opponents would dispute the "thousands of good-paying jobs for many decades" that the Fox correspondent mentions, among other details.

The Daily Caller got in on the action with a piece full of loaded language.

The small legal victory, combined with a federal investigation, could present huge problems for the EPA, which is preventing Pebble from getting a key federal permit needed to operate. PLP can now obtain documents through discovery and depose individuals in their pursuit to show that the EPA’s veto of the Pebble Mine was biased. ... But that’s not all. As Pebble supporters celebrate their legal win, investigators with the EPA inspector general’s office are continuing their probe into the agency’s decision on the Pebble Mine to discover if the process was rigged and influenced by environmental activists.

This should be interesting to watch in the new year, when the new Congress is seated and we can expect a renewed round of attacks on the EPA's authority, as well as further developments in Pebble's various lawsuits.

AK Judge Sides with Pebble, Issues Prelminary Injunction Against EPA

In Anchorage on November 24th, a federal judge issued a prelminary injunction blocking the EPA from taking further actions to block the controversial Pebble Mine project. The Pebble Limited Partnership had sued the EPA for, in effect, colluding with anti-mining activists to begin the process of blocking the mine, which the EPA contends it can do under powers granted it by section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. The Pebble Partnership disagrees, but the injunction, from Judge H. Russel Holland, Senior Judge for the US District Court in Alaska, remains silent on the ultimate legitimacy of EPA 404(c) action. As Lisa Demer of the Alaska Dispatch reported,

Activists fighting the mine noted that U.S. District Judge Russel Holland rejected two of Pebble’s three arguments to halt EPA over a theory that it colluded with anti-mine activists and scientists. Rather, the judge determined that Pebble had a chance of winning on one claim, that EPA improperly turned to an anti-mine team as it worked on its study of how a big mine would affect the Bristol Bay watershed.

The EPA in July announced that it intended to take extraordinary steps to protect Bristol Bay’s world-class salmon runs and proposed restrictions that would prevent the mega-mine from being advanced by the Pebble Partnership. While it stopped short of an outright veto of the project, the EPA said it would place caps on how many miles of streams and acres of wetlands could be lost if the mine were developed.

Pebble responded with three lawsuits.

 

Read the rest here. And though this is only a temporary measure, Pebble CEO Tom Collier called it an important "procedural victory" that meant that "for the firs ttime EPAs march to preemptively veto Pebble has been halted."

Much more to come on this, I'm sure.

Bristol Bay Outlook 2015: Lots and Lots of Fish

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game released its Bristol Bay salmon forecast for 2015 this week, and it is a doozy: in what's predicted to be the biggest run in 20 years, some 54 million sockeye salmon should return to the Bay in 2015.

That's a lot of fish. Click through for full report.

To put that in perspective, the historical average over the past 20 summers is 34.7 million, and the 2014 run, which was a strong one, saw 40.6 million sockeye return to the Bay. It should go without saying that Bristol Bay remains a shining example of what can be accomplished via diligent and intelligent fisheries management, and ADFG should be commended for the way it manages the run.

And to put that number into further perspective, if the 2015 run lives up to this forecast, the overall 2015 harvest will be nearly as much as the total run was in 2014. Amazing.

But fishermen being fishermen, not everyone's jumping for joy just yet. As Robert Heyano, who's fished Bristol Bay since he was a boy and is now president of the Bristol Bay Seafood Development Association, told the Alaska Dispatch, "They are paper fish until they show up."

Here's to hoping they all show up.

Bristol Bay Salmon Report: Lots of Fish

Me and a net full of sockey. Photo courtesy of Corey Arnold.I've just returned from a quick but productive trip to Bristol Bay, where I teamed up with my old partner in crime Corey Arnold (the talented photographer behind the image above) for the peak of the Bristol Bay commercial salmon season. It was a quick, exhausting, exhilirating trip, with none of the gradual ramp-up that you have in working the full sockeye season. This year, it was out of the plane and into the fire: 24 hours after leaving Newark, I was hauling in nets with salmon hanging off of them, as someone once wrote, like grapes off a vine. The fishing hardly let up the entire time I was there, as the Kvichak River experienced a particularly robust run this year. The weather was perfect, the midnight sunsets memorable, and the company, as ever, varied but enjoyable. More to come on all of this soon, including photos.

Gone Fishing: Bristol Bay 2014

It's that time of year again--the salmon are returning to spawn in the rivers of Alaska's Bristol Bay region, and I'll once again be joining the shadow migration of fishermen drawn there in their wake. I'm headed out tomorrow to join my old co-conspirators at the mouth of the Kvichak River to work the peak of what is shaping up to be a rather impressive season for the east side of Bristol Bay. It'll be a short trip for me, two weeks of tides and mud and mosquitoes, no showers or electricity or internet or cell phones, long days and very little sleep and grinding work and thousands and thousands of fish. I'm looking forward to it.

Last of the Young Men: Robert Sallee Dies

 

Anyone familiar with Norman Maclean's masterful Young Men and Fire, a stunning recreation of the events surrounding the deaths of 12 smoke-jumpers in the legendarily tragic Mann Gulch fire in 1949, will likely recall Robert Sallee, one of only three survivors from that doomed crew. Sallee was just 17 years old at the time of the fire, and was the last living link to it until he passed away last week in Spokane, WA, at the age of 82.

Sallee returned to the site of the fire with Maclean in 1978, and that visit is captured beautifully in the book, though, as the Times obituary observes, the eyewitness testimony proved inconclusive:

[Maclean's] detailed account of their recollections and their court testimony fails to unravel precisely what happened; rather, it succeeds in illustrating the terror of being caught in such a monstrous natural maelstrom.

Mr. Maclean wrote: “Sallee talks so often about everything happening in a matter of seconds after he and Rumsey left Dodge’s fire that at first it seems just a manner of speaking. But if you combine the known facts with your imagination and are a mountain climber and try to accompany Rumsey and Sallee to the top, you will know that to have lived you had to be young and tough and lucky."

The book, published posthumously in 1992 (MacLean died in 1990), won the National Book Critics Circle award. I remember the first time I read it, when I was about the same age as many of the young men of the title and thought myself young and tough and lucky. I recall being entirely entranced by the craftsmanship of the book, by the attempt to put the pieces of the puzzle together even if the end result is bound to be inconclusive. But I was also warned by its content of the limits of the seeming invincibility of youth:

“They were still so young they hadn't learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy.”

I'd encourage any reader at any age to pick up a copy. In fact, it may be about time I re-read it.

Savage Harvest Review Essay on Slate

My review essay on Carl Hoffman’s Savage Harvest and the enduring quest to solve the Michael Rockefeller mystery is now up on Slate. It’s partly a book review, partly a recollection of my own Asmat adventure, and partly an attempt to grapple with the problematic questions—historical, cultural, linguistic, colonial, narrative—that underlie this seemingly evergreen story. An excerpt:

“I believe I’ve solved it,” says Carl Hoffman in the book trailer for Savage Harvest, his investigation into the mysterious disappearance of 23-year-old heir Michael Rockefeller off the south coast of New Guinea in 1961. It’s a bold claim: The Rockefeller disappearance has become known as one of the 20th century’s most enduring unsolved mysteries, catnip for generations of journalists and adventurers, all looking to answer the same question: Did Rockefeller drown trying to swim to the marshy shore of the Asmat region after his boat capsized (the family’s official story), or did he make land, there to be killed and eaten by the very Asmat people whose art and carvings he had been collecting? His last words before diving in and swimming toward shore, uttered to a companion who stayed with their overturned craft and was rescued the following day: “I think I can make it.”

Did Michael make it? Probably. Has Hoffman solved it? Sort of. In both cases, it’s complicated.

Read the rest here.

And if you’re looking for a more straight up review of Savage Harvest, there’s no shortage of them out there. Joshua Hammer reviewed it in the New York Times Book Review this past weekend, following Bill Gifford in the Washington Post, Roger Lowenstein in the Wall Street Journal, and a host of others.

And while my review is less straightforward than the others, I generally agree with their assessment: this is a book worth reading.

Rio Tinto Backs out of Pebble Mine

At the head of the Kvichak River, Bristol Bay, 2012.

In another blow to the already beleaguered Pebble Mine, Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto announced Monday that it was ending its involvment with the controversial project and gifting its 19.1% stake in Pebble prospect owner Northern Dynasty Minerals to two Alaskan charities, the Alaska Community Foundation and the Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation. This leaves Canadian mining company Northern Dynasty without a partner for development of the mine, a process it cannot afford to undertake on its own.

There were hints that Rio was headed towards this decision--in December they announced a strategic review of their investement in Pebble, and then in February, the Rio representative on Northern Dynasty's board resigned--but the announcement triggered another fall in Northern Dynasty stock prices nonetheless. This comes on the heels of a tough six months for Pebble's prospects: In September, Anglo-American, which owned 50% of Pebble, pulled out of the project, taking a loss of $300 million; soon after, layoffs began for Pebble's Alaska staff; then in January Alaskan Sen. Mark Begich came out in opposition to the mine; in early February, the Pebble Partnership replaced its long-time CEO; and then the bombshell in March, when the EPA, which had been studying the potential effects of a large-scale mine on Bristol Bay's salmon run, announced that it was invoking its power  under section 404c of the Clean Water Act and intiating a process that could lead to a "veto" of mine permits, and which effectively blocks the mining companies from applying for permits for the foreseeable future.

According to Rio's press release, their divestment is the result of the strategic review's  conclusion that "the Pebble Project does not fit with Rio Tinto's strategy", and its decision to give away the shares was an effort to insure that Alaskan stakeholders have a voice in the process. But the more likely explanation is that they simply could not find a buyer.

Pebble opponents were jubilant--"Thank You, Rio Tinto" ran the headline of a post by the NRDC's Joel Reynolds on HuffPo--and even optimistic. "Rio Tinto's divestment from Pebble may not be the final nail in the coffin," Bonnie Gestring, Northwest program director of Pebble critic Earthworks, told the Washington Post, "but it's surely one of the last."

Of course, not everyone's so happy, and Alaska Governor Sean Parnell took the opportunity to once again hammer the EPA for what he sees as an unprecedented encroachment on Alaskan sovreignty, which he blames for scaring off companies like Rio. “It’s disheartening to see a company like Rio Tinto take its business elsewhere as a result of the current federal regulatory environment,” said Gov. Parnell in a statement released by his office. “Even more troubling is the EPA’s efforts to preemptively veto a project before any proposal has been submitted and before a public permitting process has even commenced."

The oddest part of Rio's move, though, may be how they have chosen to dispose of their shares, currently valued at about $16 million. "By giving our shares to two respected Alaskan charities," said Rio Tinto Copper CEO Jena-Sebastien Jacques in the company's release, "we are ensuring that Aaskans will have a say in Pebble's future development and that any economic benefit supports Alaska's ability to attract investment that creates jobs."

Having local stakeholders more involved will be a good thing, but there are two salient, though unspoken, ironies here: first, Northern Dynasty's share prices tumbled after the announcement and have dropped nearly ten percent from close of trading Friday through today, eroding the value of the gifted stock by $1.5 million; and second, and more interestingly, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC), whose Educational Foundation will receive half of Rio's stake, has been a powerful and vocal critic of Pebble, which could make them particularly interesting as an owner.

"This gift provides an example of what open discussion and relationship building between stakeholders with differing views can accomplish," said BBNC President Jason Metrokin, according to the Anchorage Daily News. "However, BBNC's opposition to the proposed Pebble mine has not changed."


Read more here: http://www.adn.com/2014/04/07/3413818/mining-giant-rio-tinto-pulling.html#storylink=cpy

For their part, Northern Dynasty remained stonefaced as ever. "We look forward to meeting with the leadership of the Alaska Community Foundation and Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation in the days ahead," said Northern Dynasty President & CEO Ron Thiessen in the company's statement, "to better understand their long-term goals and aspirations, and how their ownership interest in Northern Dynasty and the Pebble Project can make the greatest possible contribution to the people and communities they serve."

Is it just me, or does that not sound entirely enthusiastic? Watch this space for more on this story. 

More Stories to Chase: A Remembrance

(When news reached NYC that journalist Matthew Power had passed away while on assignment in Uganda--NY Times obit here for further details--tributes began popping up almost immediately, which makes sense for a man who was so generous and cultivated so many friendships. And cultivate is the right word: an avid gardener, Matt knew that some effort, attention, and nourishment were as necessary for friends as for plants. When a call went out for essays and remembrances of Matt, with the suggestion that Matt would have wanted us to write through the grief, all I could think of was the last afternoon I spent with Matt. The vignette below is the result. --TS)

The last time I spent an afternoon with Matt was on a sunny, crisp day in December. After a couple weeks of emailing back and forth, trying to make our schedules mesh, we met for lunch at a coffee shop a few blocks from his house in Lefferts, the day before Matt was to head off to South Sudan for a story about a remote Doctors Without Borders post there.

It was a sort of too-hip-for-its-own-good place—“A beachhead of the coming gentrification,” Matt said, before steering me towards the grilled Portobello sandwich.

We spent the lunch discussing what we always did, writing and the work and the pieces in front of us and the ones coming down the pike and the ones we hoped some day to get to. Matt was a star in our world of magazine writers, out-working, out-producing and out-writing most of the rest of us, but with a humility that never sought to outshine anyone. He gave of his time generously and genuinely, and on that afternoon, there was never any inkling that we were anything but equals having a lunch, sharing stories of the highs and lows of this writing life.

Except that for Matt, the lows always paled in comparison to the prolonged high of getting to tell stories and be paid for it. He seemed to do the job so much better, more fluidly, with less hand-wringing than others of us, at least partly because he never lost that initial sense of joy. He never stopped believing that what we do is a privilege, and that it’s important.

It wasn’t until after lunch that we moved on to what both of us considered the more exciting segment of our two-part itinerary: we went back to Matt and Jess’s house on Hawthorne Street. I’d recently begun a renovation project, and when Matt caught wind he invited me over so he could show me what he’d done at his place. I knew going in that it would be incredibly informative, and I suspected it would be also be entertaining. It was both, but it was also something else: motivating.

If ever I was tempted in the months that followed, while embarking on my own renovation, to overlook a detail, or to claim that whatever deadline I was on had left me without enough time for housework, I thought back to that afternoon. To his attention to every unloved cranny of that house. To his soliloquies about the oddest home-ownership minutiae. To him, standing in the back garden, pointing up at the tin can he’d jury-rigged to catch overflow from an ill-fitting downspout that had flooded his bedroom while he was off on a story and someone else was staying there. To his crooked smile as we stood in the dungeonesque “gym” in his basement, contemplating a residency program centered on voluntary imprisonment in such a space, with no release until a satisfactory number of pages had been generated. 

It was a nothing moment but it encapsulated many things: the willingness to dream; a recognition of the discipline required to produce good work; the attention to detail, in both writing and home improvement; the giddy appreciation of the absurd; and the generosity both of time and of spirit that made him such a positive influence on me and literally hundreds of others.

As it wound on towards late afternoon, we said our goodbyes. I had a deadline and he had to pack for Africa. As I walked off to the subway, Matt called after me with one last suggestion. “Better start thinking about your spring planting,” he said. “We’ll talk about it when I’m back.”

We never did connect for the planting tutorial, and since hearing the shocking, tragic news that Matt had passed away while on assignment in Uganda, I’ve been thinking often of that December afternoon. Looking back through the email chain that preceded it, all the usual Power hallmarks are there: prompt responses, answers to every question, and a refusal to let the vicissitudes of our schedules defeat our efforts to meet up. There were also, embedded in the messages in a subtle, older-brotherly sort of way, kernels of advice.

I’d been beating myself up about a book that was about to come out—I was writing a review, but it was a story I had a long history with, and I was kicking myself for not having churned out a book on the topic years ago. Matt was typically gracious, typically useful.

“I can totally empathize, but no use beating yourself up about a book you didn’t write,” he wrote. “There are always more stories to chase.”

Early days: That time I wrote about Viagra

Back when I was starting out and hungry to get my name in print by whatever means necessary, a kind editor at Outside named Grant Davis started letting me write portions of our monthly, Front-of-Book fitness roundup, The Pulse. It was a break, and I tackled it with all the juvenile gusto you might expect, assaulting the editors with countless awful ideas. But enough of them stuck that I snuck into print, and got some pretty good reporting experience in the process. This entry, from March 2003, which I just came across while attempting to update some links on this site, was probably my favorite. Here it is, in all its choppy-prosed glory:

NO MORE HEAVY BREATHING: Researchers at London's Imperial College School of Medicine, working with researchers in the Kyrgyz Republic, are using VIAGRA to alleviate pulmonary hypertension, a factor in high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), the lethal condition in which the lungs fill with fluid as a result of lower oxygen levels at higher elevations. "The assumption is that if you can prevent pulmonary hypertension, you might offset or prevent the chances of edema," says researcher Martin Wilkins. "And Viagra can do that." But how? In addition to the, shall we say, helping hand that Viagra provides for men, the drug also relaxes blood vessels running to and from the lungs that might otherwise constrict in a low-oxygen environment. This doesn't make the pill an altitude-sickness cure-all. When it comes to preventing acute mountain sickness or high-altitude cerebral edema, "Viagra is unlikely to have any effect whatsoever," says Thomas Dietz, a doctor with the International Society for Mountain Medicine. Still, it may be good news for your lungs. And the doctors say mountaineers on Viagra won't have to worry about stretching out their snow pants—unless a particularly attractive female yeti happens by.

It was my favorite less for the not-so-subtle erection jokes than for the hilarious, perfect illustration by the prolific John Cuneo. Here was a throwaway blurb, based on dubious science, but somehow, once paired with Cuneo's illustration, it became something (slightly) more:

Illustration by John Cuneo, courtesy of Outside.

At the time, this all represented, to me, a sort of amazing alchemy: I could write some text; that text would be sent off to an illustrator; this would return; they would run together. My words had put this chain in motion. My little words. Again, it was nothing, but in some part of my cub-journalist brain, it aligned exactly with my overly idealized version of what magazines might be: synergy between text and illustration, the creation of an immersive reader experience, little bits of serendipity folded between pages.

Either that, or I was 24 at the time and it made me laugh. Still does.

Gone Too Soon: Matthew Power

Word began reverberating this morning in the relatively small world of magazine journalists via email lists and various social networks that we'd lost one of our own: Matthew Power--kind, generous, curious, brilliant, and indefatigable--passed away while reporting a story for Men's Journal in northern Uganda. He was profiing and following a man who is attempting to walk the entire length of the Nile, and initial reports indicate that Matt died of some combination of heatstroke and overexertion, in a place remote enough that there was no possibility of timely medical assistance. 

Matt was a friend, a guiding light, and an inspiration. While the rest of us would get bogged down, fed up with the vaguaries of the magazine world, Matt was always charging forward towards the next story, always one step ahead of the rest of us, always producing quality work at a rate that astounded me. He was also always generous with his time, his contacts, his words of encouragement, and his laughter. He was the kind of writer and journailst that many of us aspire to be, and he will be greatly, greatly missed.

I will leave it to others who knew him far better than I did to pen more thorough eulogies and remembrances, but I will post a couple links, because I think everyone should read some of Matt's work today, and because I think his work will endure. Small consolation right now, perhaps, but here are a few of my favorites:

"Mississippi Drift: River Vagrants in the Age of Wal-Mart," Harper's, 2008.

"Confessions of a Drone Warrior," GQ, 2013.

"Excuse us While we Kiss the Sky," Urban Exploration, GQ, 2013.

"Blood in the Sand: The Killing of a Turtle Advocate," Outside, 2014.

Book Alert: Carl Hoffman searches for Michael Rockefeller in "Savage Harvest"

Villagers in Momogu, Asmat, raise their paddles. (Nathanial Havholm)In 2008, Outside Magazine and the Travel Channel sent me to Indonesian Papua to follow in the footsteps of vanished heir Michael Rockefeller to try to figure out whether the grisly rumors of his being killed and eaten by Asmat headhunters in 1961 were true. The resulting Travel Channel pilot, "Gone Missing: Vanished in Papua," disappeared even more quickly and mysteriously than Michael did, but Amsat is a place I think of often, and I'll always count my experiences there as among the most important and formative of my early reporting adventures. My feature for Outside about my Asmat adventure can be found here; further links to the trailer and the full cut of our pilot can be found on my Gone Missing page.

Over the years, the Rockefeller story has attracted journalists and storytellers of widely varying levels of competence (I put myself somewhere in the middle of the competence spectrum), but few have dug as deep as journalist Carl Hoffman, who's investigation into the Rockefeller disappearance is chronicled in his new book Savage Harvest, set to be released March 18th. Hoffman unearths a heap of evidence pointing to the conclusion that Michael was killed and eaten, but I'll hold off on further analysis for a review essay I'm planning to write. For now you can learn more about it at Harper Collins (be sure to watch Hoffman's book trailer) and Amazon.

EPA Announces Move to Block Pebble Mine

Anti-Pebble flag at Peter Pan cannery, Dillingham, AK, 2009Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy announced Friday that the Agency is taking the first step towards exercising its powers under the Clean Water Act to block development of the controversial Pebble Mine, a massive copper and gold deposit located in Alaska’s renowned Bristol Bay region. The move culminates more than three years of study by the Agency and potentially cuts off development of the mine before the Pebble Limited Partnership, the consortium of mining companies behind the project, has even applied for permits.

And while McCarthy stressed that the announcement merely blocked permitting temporarily and initiated a four-step process that might lead to permanent protection of Bristol Bay, the news looked like a substantial victory for the coalition of fishermen, environmentalists, and local Native groups who have been arguing for years that the location of the deposit near the headwaters of major river systems meant that it could not be mined without unacceptably endangering the legendary Bristol Bay salmon run. It’s become the most politically-charged resource debate in Alaska, pitting a mine worth potentially hundreds of billions of dollars against a salmon run that forms the backbone of a the region’s pristine ecosystem and supports its robust commercial and sport fishing economy, as well as the salmon-based culture of the tribes who have lived in the area for millennia.

“Today, EPA is taking a significant step forward in our efforts to insure that he world’s most productive salmon fishery is safe from the risks that it faces from what could be one of the largest mines on earth,” McCarthy told reporters in a conference call Friday, explaining that Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act gives the agency the ability to act pre-emptively by exercising its “veto authority” over permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. “This 404(c) process is not something—and I want to stress this—that the agency does very often,” McCarthy said, “but the Bristol Bay fishery is an extraordinary resource, and it’s worthy of out-of-the-ordinary agency actions to protect it.”

It is, indeed, a rare invocation of then EPA’s authority to restrict or outright prohibit any discharge of dredge or fill that might have “unacceptable adverse effects” on water supplies, wildlife, fisheries, or recreational areas. Such a process has been initiated just 29 times previously, and it has run to completion and resulted in restrictions just 13 times. Only once has the Agency interceded before permits have been filed, as it is contemplating with Pebble.

But in this case, the EPA feels it has done its homework, having spent more than three years acquainting itself with Bristol Bay. The agency’s involvement in the Pebble issue started in 2010 when, at the request of local tribes and stakeholder groups, it initiated a comprehensive study of the potential effects of large-scale mining on the Bristol Bay watershed. That process took more than three years of gathering data, and after numerous public meetings, more than a million online comments, and two rounds of scientific peer review, the final draft of the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment was released in January.

And though controversial with pro-development Alaskans and conservative politicians who saw it as an egregious federal intrusion on Alaskan sovereignty, its conclusions were clear. “EPA has concluded that large scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses significant near and long-term risks to salmon, wildlife, and Native Alaskan cultures,” Dennis McClerran, Regional Administrator for EPA’s Region 10, which covers Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, said at the time. And though the agency insisted that no determination had been made on whether to block Pebble’s permitting, most of those involved in the Pebble debate have been waiting expectantly since January for the other shoe to drop. On Friday, it did.

The Pebble Partnership and majority owner Northern Dynasty Minerals, of Canada, in response reiterated its earlier criticism of EPA intercession and called the initiation of this process “premature and unprecedented” in a release issued Friday afternoon. “We remain confident in our project and our position,” said Pebble CEO Tom Collier in the statement. “We will continue to state our case with the EPA as we work through their process. The EPA’s actions today are an unprecedented federal action and reflect a major overreach onto an asset of the State of Alaska.” (The market was less optimistic: by day’s end Friday, Northern Dynasty’s stock had fallen by nearly a third, from $1.47 at opening to just a dollar a share. It has spent this week trading in the 80 to 95 cent range. As a comparison, at this time last year it was trading at $3.40 per share.)

McCarthy anticipated the “overreach” criticism by noting in her announcement that this decision was within EPA’s legal authority to make and that it was unique and in no way meant to set a precedent. The Pebble folks weren’t the only ones to disagree with her. “Today’s egregious action by the EPA goes beyond federal overreach,” read a statement from Sharon Leighow, Press Secretary for Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell. “The EPA has not only cut off public input and process, but ahs also unilaterally decided that they, not Alaskans, now what’s best for our future.”

One thing she seems to be mistaken on: there definitely will be ample opportunity for more public input as the EPA works through the four-part 404(c) process, which will involve public comment periods, public hearings, and consultations with the affected parties. “On average,” McClerran told reporters on Friday’s call, “the 404c process from beginning to end has taken approximately a year.”

So while those who have been fighting Pebble will have to wait a little longer to see whether the EPA’s temporary freeze on mining in Bristol Bay becomes permanent, they were clearly of the opinion that this announcement was a nail—if not the final one—in Pebble’s coffin. “This puts EPA’s eyes on the prize,” said Joel Reynolds of the NRDC, which has been a vocal opponent of the mine. “The science is sound, EPA’s legal authority is clear, and the people of Bristol Bay have demanded protection.”

Indeed, it’s hard to see the EPA backing down at this point, especially with support from the Obama Administration. “The White House strongly supports that decision by the EPA,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Friday, according to the Washington Post. “The step is consistent with the president’s commitment to protect pristine American places for future generations.”

In response to the final question at the end of the conference call with reporters, McCarthy made a case for the Agency’s exceptional action. “In rare times, you see something that is an extraordinary confluence of issues and factors and the law tells us we should have cognizance of that,” she said. “Alaskans asked us to pay attention, and this is really the EPA paying attention to an extraordinary situation.”

EPA Moves to block Pebble Mine

(The EPA announced today that it was intitiating a process to determine whether to invoke its "veto" power under the Clean Water Act in blocking Alaska's controversial Pebble Mine. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy hosted a very interesting conference call for reporters earlier, and I'll be writing a summary of that, but for now, I wanted to post the EPA's release in full. This is a huge day for anyone who has an interest in the debate over the Pebble Mine and the future of Bristol Bay.)

EPA moves to protect Bristol Bay fishery from Pebble Mine

Release Date: 02/28/2014

Agency action begins process to prevent damage to world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery

(Washington, D.C.—Feb. 28, 2014) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is initiating a process under the Clean Water Act to identify appropriate options to protect the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery in Bristol Bay, Alaska from the potentially destructive impacts of the proposed Pebble Mine. The Pebble Mine has the potential to be one of the largest open pit copper mines ever developed and could threaten a salmon resource rare in its quality and productivity. During this process, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cannot approve a permit for the mine.

This action, requested by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, reflects the unique nature of the Bristol Bay watershed as one of the world’s last prolific wild salmon resources and the threat posed by the Pebble deposit, a mine unprecedented in scope and scale. It does not reflect an EPA policy change in mine permitting.

"Extensive scientific study has given us ample reason to believe that the Pebble Mine would likely have significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. "It’s why EPA is taking this step forward in our effort to ensure protection for the world’s most productive salmon fishery from the risks it faces from what could be one of the largest open pit mines on earth. This process is not something the Agency does very often, but Bristol Bay is an extraordinary and unique resource."

The EPA is basing its action on available information, including data collected as a part of the agency’s Bristol Bay ecological risk assessment and mine plans submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Today, Dennis McLerran, EPA Regional Administrator for EPA Region 10, sent letters to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the State of Alaska, and the Pebble Partnership initiating action under EPA’s Clean Water Act Section 404(c) authorities.

"Bristol Bay is an extraordinary natural resource, home to some of the most abundant salmon producing rivers in the world. The area provides millions of dollars in jobs and food resources for Alaska Native Villages and commercial fishermen," McLerran said. "The science EPA reviewed paints a clear picture: Large-scale copper mining of the Pebble deposit would likely result in significant and irreversible harm to the salmon and the people and industries that rely on them."

Today’s action follows the January 2014 release of EPA’s "Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska," a study that documents the significant ecological resources of the region and the potentially destructive impacts to salmon and other fish from potential large-scale copper mining of the Pebble Deposit. The assessment indicates that the proposed Pebble Mine would likely cause irreversible destruction of streams that support salmon and other important fish species, as well as extensive areas of wetlands, ponds and lakes.

In 2010, several Bristol Bay Alaska Native tribes requested that EPA take action under Clean Water Act Section 404(c) to protect the Bristol Bay watershed and salmon resources from development of the proposed Pebble Mine, a venture backed by Northern Dynasty Minerals. The Bristol Bay watershed is home to 31 Alaska Native Villages. Residents of the area depend on salmon as a major food resource and for their economic livelihood, with nearly all residents participating in subsistence fishing.

Bristol Bay produces nearly 50 percent of the world’s wild sockeye salmon with runs averaging 37.5 million fish each year. The salmon runs are highly productive due in large part to the exceptional water quality in streams and wetlands, which provide valuable salmon habitat.

The Bristol Bay ecosystem generates hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity and provides employment for over 14,000 full and part-time workers. The region supports all five species of Pacific salmon found in North America: sockeye, coho, Chinook, chum, and pink. In addition, it is home to more than 20 other fish species, 190 bird species, and more than 40 terrestrial mammal species, including bears, moose, and caribou.

Based on information provided by The Pebble Partnership and Northern Dynasty Minerals, mining the Pebble deposit may involve excavation of a pit up to one mile deep and over 2.5 miles wide -- the largest open pit ever constructed in North America. Disposal of mining waste may require construction of three or more massive earthen tailings dams as high as 650 feet. The Pebble deposit is located at the headwaters of Nushagak and Kvichak rivers, which produce about half of the sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay.

The objective of the Clean Water Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters. The Act emphasizes protecting uses of the nation’s waterways, including fishing.

The Clean Water Act generally requires a permit under Section 404 from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before any person places dredge or fill material into wetlands, lakes and streams. Mining operations typically involve such activities and must obtain Clean Water Act Section 404 permits. Section 404 directs EPA to develop the environmental criteria the Army Corps uses to make permit decisions. It also authorizes EPA to prohibit or restrict fill activities if EPA determines such actions would have unacceptable adverse effects on fishery areas.

The steps in the Clean Water Act Section 404(c) review process are:

  • Step 1 – Consultation period with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and owners of the site, initiated today.
  • Step 2 – Publication of Proposed Determination, including proposed prohibitions or restrictions on mining the Pebble deposit, in Federal Register for public comment and one or more public hearings.
  • Step 3 – Review of public comments and development of Recommended Determination by EPA Regional Administrator to Assistant Administrator for Water at EPA Headquarters in Washington, DC.
  • Step 4 – Second consultation period with the Army Corps and site owners and development of Final Determination by Assistant Administrator for Water, including any final prohibitions or restrictions on mining the Pebble deposit.

Based on input EPA receives during any one of these steps, the agency could decide that further review under Section 404(c) is not necessary.

Now that the 404(c) process has been initiated, the Army Corps cannot issue a permit for fill in wetlands or streams associated with mining the Pebble deposit until EPA completes the 404(c) review process.

EPA has received over 850,000 requests from citizens, tribes, Alaska Native corporations, commercial and sport fisherman, jewelry companies, seafood processors, restaurant owners, chefs, conservation organizations, members of the faith community, sport recreation business owners, elected officials and others asking EPA to take action to protect Bristol Bay.

For information on the Clean Water Act Section 404(c) visit: http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/guidance/cwa/dredgdis/upload/404c.pdf (PDF, 2 pp, 600K)

For information on the EPA Bristol Bay Assessment, visit: http://www2.epa.gov/bristolbay

Paperback Row: Jame's Salter's "All That Is"

For those who missed it when it first came out, All That Is, the latest novel from legendary writer and all around badass James Salter, just came out in paperback. For the curious, I reviewed it for GQ.com last year:

"There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real."

So reads the epigraph of James Salter's stunning new novel All That Is. For Salter, now 87, writing is a sacred act, and it is only fitting that he begins his latest novel, the capstone of his half-century-long career, by paying homage to it. "Life passes into pages," he's written elsewhere, "if it passes into anything."

And what a life, and what pages. Salter is the man many of us wish we could be—West Point grad, fighter pilot, skier, traveler, raconteur, and, from his 1957 debut novel, The Hunters, which was based on his Korean War experience flying combat missions over the Yalu, to his best books—Light Years, A Sport and a Pastime—one of the finest prose stylists and most enviable American writers of the last half century.

Read the rest of that review here.

And for those looking to go a little deeper into the man behind the myth, here's a Q&A I did for Outside after sitting down to a memorable lunch with the great man a couple years ago. The intro to my first (unpublished) draft of that piece ended this bit of hyperbole:

After lunch, I thought of a line of Salter’s. In his essay “The Skiing Life,” he describes a harrowing but invigorating run down the fabled Hahnenkamm downhill course at Kitzbuhel, following Austrian champion Toni Sailer, who swept the three Alpine events in the 1956 Olympics. Afterward, he is asked how it went. “It will be true one day even if it isn’t now. ‘The greatest run of my life,’ I say and go upstairs and back to bed.”  I didn’t go back to bed, but it was—or will be—the greatest lunch of my life.

But I've had many lunches since, and that sentiment still holds up.

Pebble Update -- Begich Jumps Ship: Pebble is “wrong mine, wrong place, too big”

Oxbows in the tundra, aerial view near proposed Pebble site (2010).

Until this week, Alaska's three-person Congressional delegation had presented a mostly united front on the controversial Pebble Mine, the massive and as yet un-mined copper, gold, and molybdenum deposit in Southwest Alaska, near the headwaters of the rivers that feed the famed Bristol Bay salmon run.

Their position: supportive of the mining companies’ right to explore the deposit and leery of any effort to quash the mine’s development preemptively, particularly if it came from outside the state’s borders. Pebble, they held, was an Alaskan resource on state-owned lands, and the decision ought to be made by Alaskans. Which is why they took offense to the EPA’s decision in 2011 to begin a study of the potential impacts of large-scale mining on the Bristol Bay watershed.

Last week, the EPA released the final draft of its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, concluding that a large-scale mine in Bristol Bay would represent an unacceptable risk to the region’s salmon-based ecosystem. It was that report, widely seen as the first step towards a potential action to block the mine, that seems to have goaded Sen. Mark Begich into coming out against the mine.

In an interview over the weekend with the Anchorage Daily News, Sen. Begich said of Pebble:

"Wrong mine, wrong place, too big," Begich said in an interview. "Too many potential long-term impacts to a fishery that is pretty critical to that area but also to Alaska, to world markets."

The “wrong mine, wrong place” formulation is a nifty one, allowing Begich to toe a line necessary for any Alaskan politician opposing Pebble: pro-mining in general, just opposed to this mine in particular. For those who have been following this issue for a while, there were clear, and likely intentional, echoes in Begich’s statement, one of which The Daily News picked up on:

Begich's language almost mirrors former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens' wording back in 2008 when asked about Pebble at a campaign stop in Kodiak. "I am not opposed to mining, but it is the wrong mine for the wrong place," Stevens said.

On reading Begich’s words, I thought immediately of Stevens, but also of another Alaskan politician, Rick Halford, former President of the Alaska State Senate and now a vehement opponent of the mine. I can’t be sure that he originated it, but he has long used an eloquent variation of that mantra. Here’s what Halford said in June 2008 at the Pacific Fisheries Legislative Task Force meeting in Dillingham, as I reported in Outside Magazine:

Rick Halford, a former Alaska state senator who's generally pro-extraction but opposes the Pebble mine, summed it up at the Dillingham meeting. "Mining is an important part of Alaska's heritage," he said. "But this particular prospect, in this particular location, is a disaster for all time."

Coming on the heals of the EPA’s report, it was hard not to see Begich’s statements as a tacit endorsement of EPA action. According to the Daily News, that’s not the case:

Begich said he wasn't calling for EPA to veto the mine. Alaskans have been pushing him for years to take a stand, and with the study finally complete, he said it was time. His office has received about 2,800 communications from Alaskans against Pebble and about 280 in support of it, he said.

Naturally, the Pebble Partnership was not pleased and issued its own statement, in which they tried to portray Sen. Begich as in the pocket of a carpet-bagging, overreaching EPA. “We also are stunned that an Alaskan Senator supports the EPA—a federal agency acting unilaterally—to make decisions about future development on state land in Alaska,” it reads. The Senator’s statement, in their eyes, aids those who would seek to prevent them from a fair hearing via the state and federal permitting process. “There is no environmental harm whatsoever that will be caused by allowing Pebble into that [permitting] process.”

This has been Pebble’s response to criticism for years: wait until we have a mine plan, and then give it a fair shot in the permitting process. And while opponents say that the permitting process is rigged in the mining companies’ favor, and Begich grew tired of waiting for them to release a detailed plan, the two other members of Alaska's Congressional delegation seem to agree, at least in part, with Pebble.

As Murkowski told the Daily News, “I remain convinced that a preemptive veto of a mine or any other project, which the agency claims it can do under the Clean Water Act, would set a terrible precedent for development in our state and across the nation.”

Representative Don Young was a little more direct in his defense of states’ rights. “For the EPA to come into Alaska and lay the groundwork to preemptively oppose a project located entirely on state lands, and subject tot rigorous state permitting,” Young said in a press release, “is a serious threat to not only Alaska’s sovereignty, but the rights of states nationwide.”

But I wonder if, behind Rep. Young’s vehemence and Pebble’s outrage, there might be a hint of desperation. In September of last year, Pebble lost its major backer when Anglo American pulled out of the project, and in December, Rio Tinto, another global mining giant, said it was re-evaluating its stake in Pebble. For Begich, it seems the EPA report was the last straw. And now that he’s jumped ship, will others follow?

(Read more about the EPA's Bristol Bay Watershed assessment below or in my piece on the Huffington Post.)

EPA's final report: Pebble Mine bad for salmon

Spawning run temporarily interrupted, with the Bristol Bay village of Nondalton in the background (2010).

I've got a piece up on the Huffington Post today summarizing the release of the EPA's final Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment document on Wednesday. Read it below, or click through to their site.

After nearly three years of study, the EPA released the final draft of its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment this week, coming to conclusions in line with previous drafts: Large scale mining development in Southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed poses a substantial risk to the region's ecosystem and its legendary salmon run.

The assessment compiled data relevant to evaluating the potential risks posed by several hypothetical large-scale mining scenarios. Of course, there was never any doubt about which hypothetical mine the report was aimed at: the Pebble Mine.

Pebble, for those unfamiliar, is a massive copper and gold deposit worth potentially hundreds of billions of dollars that sits at the headwaters of two of Bristol Bay's primary river systems. Those river systems, in turn, support the world's largest run of sockeye salmon and a robust fishing economy that contributes $480 million annually and upwards of 14,000 full- and part-time jobs. It has also been the backbone of the region's subsistence-based Native culture for thousands of years. It's not surprising that many Bristol Bay stakeholders aren't thrilled by the prospect of a massive open pit mine and its attendant tailings dams, road corridors and other development.

All of which helps explains why the project has become such a lightning rod -- it's the most controversial resource issue in Alaska and has attracted attention and opposition from well beyond the state. (For one example: see Robert Redford's take here). This study was initiated by a request from a group of Native tribes from the region, who approached the EPA in 2010 to ask that they block the mine's development by invoking section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. Now, over three years later, after gathering data, holding public meetings, receiving over a million comments, and putting the study through two rounds of peer review by panel of independent scientists, the EPA has arrived at this final document.

In a conference call with reporters yesterday, EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran had no answer for questions as to what sort of regulatory action the study might precipitate, or on what timeline, but on the findings of the assessment, he didn't mince words: "EPA has concluded that large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses significant near and long-term risks to salmon, wildlife and native Alaskan cultures."

Jeff Frithsen, a senior scientist and special projects manager at the EPA's office of research and development in D.C, summarized the litany of potential effects -- ecological, economic, cultural -- resulting from each of the three hypothetical mine scenarios outlined in the study. In each case, he cataloged the risks posed both from a mine's routine operations and from potentially more catastrophic accidents or failures. The potential effects of even standard mining operations, as outlined by Frithsen, included the loss of dozens of miles of streams and thousands of acres of wetlands, as well as unforeseeable impacts on the 64 rivers and streams that the mine's transportation corridor would cross. (I encourage you to download the executive summary here for all the details).

Those who have been fighting against the mine were quick to endorse the study's findings. "We are pleased that the EPA has come to the conclusion that large scale mine development in the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve would endanger and put at risk the most valuable fishery in the world," said Anders Gustafson, Executive Director of the Renewable Resources Coalition, one of the primary groups fighting Pebble, adding that the study contained "exactly the kind of data" that will be needed in evaluating the project and others like it.

Of course, not everyone saw it that way. Northern Dynasty, the Canadian mining company developing Pebble, quickly issued its own press release titled, subtly, "Northern Dynasty Acknowledges Completion of EPA's Flawed Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment." "Publication of the final watershed assessment is really the final chapter in a very sad story," said Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen in the release. "We believe the EPA set out to do a flawed analysis of the Pebble Project, and they certainly succeeded with both their first and second drafts of the BBWA."

John Shively, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, the Alaska-based face of Pebble's development, concurred with Thiessen. "We have maintained all along that the Bristol Bay watershed assessment process has been rushed and thus has resulted in two very flawed documents," Shively said in a release, saying that the EPA did not commit enough time or resources to do a thorough job, and he criticized the hypothetical mine scenarios. "It must be remembered that the report does not assess the effects of the Pebble Project as we have not finalized nor submitted a project for regulatory evaluation." In Shively's eyes, without a mine plan from Pebble, the EPA is evaluating a fiction.

The mine's opponents dismissed such critiques. "If you don't like the outcome of the review, you are going to say it's bad data," Bristol Bay Native Corporation President Jason Metrokin told local TV station KTVA, while praising the process.

Flawed or not, the assessment is now final, which means people on both sides of the Pebble debate have the same question: What now? It's clear where this report comes down on the mine -- a bad thing -- but there's no inkling of whether those conclusions will lead to policy action and, if so, on what sort of a timeline.

The EPA has gone to great lengths to separate this phase -- the compilation and examination of the underlying scientific, economic and historical data --f rom any discussion of policy. In fact, page one of the report's executive summary says as much: "As a scientific assessment, it does not discuss or recommend policy, legal or regulatory decisions, nor does it outline or analyze options for future decisions." The EPA's position is, effectively: Now that we've gathered the information, we can begin thinking about what to do with it and how to respond to the tribes' request for regulatory action.

As it turns out, the situation may not be as urgent as it once seemed. After years of insisting that they were nearly ready to file for their mining permits -- "by the end of the year" was an oft-heard refrain -- the path forward for Pebble looks somewhat murkier. In September, Northern Dynasty's partner in the project, mini-giant Anglo-American, walked away from its 50 percent stake, taking a $300 million loss for its efforts and citing a need to streamline its mine development pipeline by focusing on lower risk mines with a higher probability of near-term payout. A month later, layoffs at Pebble began. And in December, global mining company Rio Tinto announced that it was reevaluating its 19 percent stake in Northern Dynasty, which represents its de facto investment in Pebble, with a possible eye on divesting.

All that being said, this story is far from over. Northern Dynasty has vowed to press forward with the mine's development, likely with a new partner to replace Anglo American. "The report does not change our plans," Mike Heatwole, spokesman for the Pebble Partnership, told me in an email. "Our immediate focus remains on working with Northern Dynasty in securing a partner to help advance the project."

Or, as a fisherman friend of mine commented after I posted a link to the EPA report, "Well, the deposit isn't going anywhere, so we'll see where it goes from here!"