ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Feb 20 (Reuters) - The world's biggest undeveloped gold and copper mining project, planned in southwestern Alaska near the largest fishery for sockeye salmon globally, moved a step closer to approval on Wednesday after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a draft environmental impact statement.
The Pebble Mine would produce 70 million tons of gold, molybdenum and copper ore a year and create a pit 1,970 feet (600 meters) deep. A new road, pipeline and power plant would be built, according to the mine plan.
The site is near Lake Iliamna in southwestern Alaska between the headwaters of two rivers that drain into Bristol Bay.
The Corps' draft statement came after public meetings that began last April to hear views from tribes and local communities about the potential benefits and environmental risks of the project.
It did not recommend any action pending a final environmental impact statement next year. A decision on a construction permit is expected in mid-2020.
The statement did point to the economic benefits from the project, while noting the mining plan incorporated ways of mitigating the environmental impact.
"From the broad, macroeconomic scale, the project need is reflected in the worldwide demand for copper," it said, adding that "the public also has an interest in improving the economy of the state, in the creation of jobs in the state, and in the extraction of natural resources for the benefit of the state."
Pebble’s developer called it a big step forward.
“While we have a lot of work remaining in front of us, this is clearly a very exciting time for the project as we have reached a significant milestone for Pebble,” Pebble Limited Partnership Chief Executive Officer Tom Collier said in a statement.
Pebble Limited Partnership is owned by Canada's Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.
Before Donald Trump was elected president, the project in southwestern Alaska, known for its huge salmon runs, wilderness and abundant brown bears, had appeared dead.
The Obama administration had proposed to invoke a rarely used federal regulation to prevent massive mines such as Pebble from being built in the region. Litigation stalled action on Obama's Bristol Bay watershed protection.
The Trump administration has allowed mine planning and permitting to move forward.
A coalition of fishermen, Alaska Natives and environmentalists has been fighting the project.
The process is now “rigged in Pebble’s favor” and is being fast-tracked to ensure that Pebble can be built over local objections, Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, said in a statement on Wednesday. (Reporting by Yereth Rosen; editing by Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)