Just north of Iliamna Lake in southwestern Alaska is an empty expanse of marsh and shrub that conceals one of the world’s great buried fortunes: A mile-thick layer of virgin ore said to contain at least 6.7 million pounds — or $120 billion worth — of gold.
As fate would have it, a second treasure sits precisely atop the first: the spawning ground for the planet’s biggest runs of sockeye salmon, the lifeline of a fishery that generates $500 million a year.
Between the two is the Obama administration, which has all but decided that only one of the treasures can be brought to market. How the White House came to side with fish over gold is a complex tale that involves millionaire activists, Alaska Natives, lawsuits and one politically explosive question: Can the federal government say no to a property owner before he has a chance to explain what he wants to do?
As early as this spring, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to invoke a rarely used legal authority to bar a Canadian company, Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., from beginning work on its proposed Pebble Mine, citing risks to salmon and to Alaska’s pristine Bristol Bay, 150 miles downstream.
The EPA’s position is supported by a broad coalition of conservationists, fishermen and tribal groups — and, most opinion polls show, by a majority of Alaskans. National environmental groups, Hollywood celebrities and wealthy activists have made the defeat of the mine a top priority, raising millions of dollars to campaign against it.
But the more consequential fight may be over how the mine is being blocked. By employing a rare preemptive “veto” — a tactic used only once in this manner in 40 years — the EPA has made itself the target of congressional Republicans who say the agency has stepped far outside the boundaries lawmakers envisioned with the adoption of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s.
The agency’s handling of the case has prompted two lawsuits, one of which accuses the EPA of violating the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act, or FACA, intended to prevent unfair outside influence in government decisions. The EPA’s inspector general recently expanded a months-long investigation into the agency’s handling of the case.
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