January 31, 2023
By Lynn Burkhead
In a move that could mark the final nail in the coffin for a controversial mining project in Alaska that threatens one of the most bountiful fisheries on the planet, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said Tuesday that the controversial Pebble Mine project has apparently been torpedoed both now and perhaps well into the future.
According to the news release, the EPA issued its Final Determination under the Clean Water Act on Tuesday morning (Jan. 31, 2023) to help protect Bristol Bay and its famed salmon ecosystem. With the action, the release notes that the Biden-Harris Administration is "protecting certain waters that are important to sustaining Southwest Alaska's salmon resources from disposal of dredged or fill materials associated with developing the Pebble deposit."
With other recent environmental decisions, including last week's finalized protections for the Tongass National Forest in Alaska and the Boundary Waters Area Watershed in Minnesota, the action is another building block on the President's desire to conserve and restore some of the nation's most cherished landscapes and waters, many of them sacred to America's Tribal Nations.
"The Bristol Bay watershed is a vital economic driver, providing jobs, sustenance, and significant ecological and cultural value to the region," said EPA Administrator Michael Regan, in the agency's news release. "With this action, EPA is advancing its commitment to help protect this one-of-a-kind ecosystem, safeguard an essential Alaskan industry, and preserve the way of life for more than two dozen Alaska Native villages."
In an acrimonious battle that has lasted for years and had many plot twists and turns, the Clean Water Act decision puts an apparent end to the threat that the Pebble Mine project would pose to the Alaskan environment. It's important to note that the battle may still continue in appellate courtrooms. While proponents of the Pebble Mine project have argued that it could go forward without harming the environment and its salmonid resources, critics argued that the risks were too great for one of the nation's most treasured places and natural resources. The EPA agreed with the latter.
"After reviewing the extensive scientific and technical record spanning two decades, EPA has determined that specific discharges associated with developing the Pebble deposit will have unacceptable and adverse effects on certain salmon fishery areas in the Bristol Bay watershed," said Radhika Fox, EPA Assistant Administrator for Water, in the news release. "Our Final Determination helps prevent those adverse effects while helping protect a vibrant and magnificent watershed. It's also important to note that EPA's action does not apply to current or future resource development projects in Alaska."
But it does apply to the Pebble Mine proposal. And that's enough for many who have fought the battle to keep the project from happening, given the enormous stakes involved. According to the EPA, those stakes are primarily the storied salmon fishery in the Bristol Bay region, which generates significant nutritional, cultural, economic, and recreational value. The total economic value, including subsistence uses of the Bristol Bay watershed's salmon resources, was estimated at more than $2.2 billion in 2019 and results in 15,000 jobs annually.
Furthermore, the EPA notes that the Bristol Bay Watershed is home to 25 Alaska Native villages and communities, and supports one of the last intact, sustainable salmon-based cultures in the world. Salmon provides more than half of the subsistence harvest for some Alaska Native communities in the Bristol Bay region, according to the agency. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership takes those numbers even farther, once again highlighting the importance of the Bristol Bay salmon ecosystem.
"Bristol Bay is home to the most prolific sockeye salmon run on the planet," TRCP noted in its news release about the EPA decision. "In 2022, nearly 80 million sockeye returned to Bristol Bay, smashing the region's previous record of 66 million fish in 2021. More than 14,000 jobs are directly supported by this sustainable fishery. In addition to the region’s abundant salmon, hunters and anglers from around the world are drawn to Bristol Bay in search of its famed brown bears and trophy trout."
Long and Contentious
The pathway toward Tuesday's decision has been a long and winding road, since the Pebble deposit, which the EPA notes is a large, low-grade deposit containing copper-, gold-, and molybdenum-bearing minerals, is located at the headwaters of the pristine Bristol Bay watershed in Southwest Alaska.
The agency also notes that the Pebble deposit also underlies portions of the South Fork Koktuli River, North Fork Koktuli River, and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds, which then drain into two of the largest rivers in the Bristol Bay watershed, the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers.
With efforts to evaluate the effects of developing a mine at the Pebble deposit being underway for more than a decade, the review process and fight between both sides has been long and contentious. As a part of that ongoing battle, the EPA notes that Pebble Limited Partnership's 2020 Mine Plan "underwent the CWA Section 404 permit review process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, being evaluated in the context of an Environmental Impact Statement pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act."
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in November 2020, the Corps of Engineers denied Pebble Limited Partnership's permit application, creating a wave of temporary euphoria among opponents to the project. But Pebble Limited Partnership appealed the permit denial with USACE, and legal review of the appeal is ongoing. It isn't completely certain what effect Tuesday's EPA decision will ultimately have on that ongoing appeals process.
With the Bristol Bay watersheds providing important spawning and rearing habitat for fish species like coho, chinook, and sockeye salmon, along with providing high-quality habitat for other fish species like rainbow trout, dolly varden, arctic grayling, and northern pike, it seems clear that EPA's decision is a serious blow to the Pebble Mine project's hopes in the Bristol Bay area.
And the decision wasn't made lightly since the EPA was quick to note that in the 50-year history of the Clean Water Act, the agency has used its Section 404(c) authority judiciously. Tuesday's move marks only the third time in 30 years and the 14th time in the Clean Water Act's history that the agency has utilized its authority in this area. The EPA's news release notes that "This highlights the value of the Bristol Bay watershed’s fishery resources."
Fight Over … For Now
While it's uncertain if this fight is over, it would not seem so according to remarks made to the Washington Post by executives with the Pebble Mine project, which the newspaper says is the sole asset of the Vancouver, British Columbia-based Northern Dynasty Minerals, Ltd.
According to the Post's story, officials with the company say the legal battle will continue on. And with the reported support of some Alaskan politicians concerning the mining industry's place in the state's economy, it would seem that isn't an empty threat.
"Unfortunately, the Biden EPA continues to ignore fair and due process in favor of politics," the paper quoted John Shively, the partnership’s chief executive, in a statement. "This preemptive action against Pebble is not supported legally, technically, or environmentally. As such, the next step will likely be to take legal action to fight this injustice."
Even so, for now, opponents of the contentious mining project are celebrating an apparent victory for the Alaskan outback. Reaction was swift from many corners of the wildlife and fisheries conservation world as well as politicians opposed to the project. The Post even quoted Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash) as saying that the decision is "the final nail in the coffin for Pebble Mine." Others sounded a more cautious, but still celebratory message, in their remarks.
"Today, @EPA announced FINAL Clean Water Act safeguards for #BristolBay- a massive step forward to ensure #PebbleMine can never return. @SaveBristolBay #NotHereNotEver," stated Trout Unlimited in a tweet from the organization's Twitter account.
"This is an incredible day for the Bristol Bay region," said Nelli Williams, Alaska director for Trout Unlimited, in a press release. "For more than a decade, the science has remained strong and public support has been unwavering for Clean Water Act protections. An Alaska-sized thank you to the Biden Administration and the EPA for listening to Alaskans, Tribes, anglers and hunters, and for doing the right thing for a worldclass renewable resource and the people and jobs that depend on it. The work in Bristol Bay isn‘t done, but today is a milestone to be celebrated."
The organization's president, Chris Wood, said in a statement to the Post that "It's time for us to work for lasting protections for the entire Bristol Bay watershed that match the scope of the threat to this special place."
Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership's own leadership called for more of the same as they celebrated today’s decision in Washington that will affect a treasured natural resource thousands of miles away. "Today's decision is a hard-earned victory for Bristol Bay residents, the majority of Alaskans, and the four million Americans who have repeatedly requested conservation safeguards for this special place," said Jen Leahy, Alaska program manager for TRCP, in the organization's news release. "The hunt-fish community is thrilled to know that another layer of safeguards now exists for the headwaters of Bristol Bay."
The organization's president and CEO, Whit Fosburgh, agreed. "Bristol Bay is one of the world's great fishing and hunting destinations," he said. "The TRCP commends the administration's decision to safeguard the headwaters of Bristol Bay, and we remain committed to securing permanent protections for this world-class fishery."