Final determination by EPA strikes blow for Pebble Mine

EPA bans mining waste disposal near site of proposed Pebble Mine
Published: Jan. 31, 2023 at 8:14 AM AKST|Updated: Jan. 31, 2023 at 8:15 PM AKST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Biden administration struck a blow to mining development in the Bristol Bay watershed Tuesday with the announcement of a final determination that works to protect wild salmon fisheries in the region, essentially stopping the development of the Pebble Mine.

“Today’s final determination was — is — an important milestone. It is another brick in the wall that we believe is critical to protect the region from the threat posed by Pebble,” Bristol Bay Native Corporation Vice President Daniel Cheyette said.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued its determination under the Clean Water Act Section 404(c), which would limit “certain discharges” associated with the Pebble deposit in the region, a massive watershed for salmon fisheries.

It’s a victory for conservation groups and a blow to advocacy groups for Pebble Mine, the proposed project in Southwest Alaska.

“Our Final Determination helps prevent those adverse effects while helping protect a vibrant and magnificent watershed,” EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox was quoted in the release. “It’s also important to note that EPA’s action does not apply to other resource development projects in Alaska.”

The EPA said it took into consideration nearly two decades of research and studies in coming to its decision, which the agency said would help prevent “unacceptable and adverse” effects on salmon fisheries around the region.

The Bristol Bay watershed houses the world’s largest wild salmon fishery — approximately 46% of the average global abundance of wild sockeye salmon, according to the EPA — and has seen fluctuations through decades of commercial fishing. 2022 was one for the record books, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which reported a preliminary count of 79 million sockeye salmon, far above the 20-year average of 43.6 million fish.

The region, which stretches to around 40,000 square miles, generates millions of dollars in salmon sales. A 2014 EPA report said over 14,000 full and part-time workers are employed in the industry, and in 2019, the EPA estimated the total economic value of the watershed at over $2.2 billion.

The Bristol Bay watershed also holds large mineral deposits, including copper and gold, although the EPA says any mining operations in the area would also produce a large amount of ore deposits due to the low concentration of valuable metals.

It’s these massive ore deposits that have caused the most concern for groups advocating against the Pebble Mine, which say dredging operations would spill into rivers and streams, effectively destroying the salmon industry.

Pebble Mine was dealt a setback in Aug. 2020 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a report advising against development, saying it would likely result in “significant degradation of the environment and would likely result in significant adverse effects on the aquatic system or human environment.”

The Bristol Bay Native Corporation called the news a “huge accomplishment” for the region, saying it is the final regulatary step in a “journey that began in 2010.”

“EPA’s Final Determination is confirmation that Bristol Bay is a special place and Pebble mine represents a unique threat to our region, economy, and way of life,” President and CEO Jason Metrokin said. “It is the product of more than a decade of rigorous scientific analysis and public comment, supported by a unified coalition of stakeholders from Alaska and beyond. Most important, the Final Determination provides the people of Bristol Bay with greater certainty that Pebble (Mine) will never be built.”

One of the most prominent groups fighting against the development of the mine, Save Bristol Bay, called Tuesday’s decision a “huge milestone.”

“The Clean Water Act will now safeguard the world’s greatest sockeye salmon fishery and will help ensure a brighter future for the countless people who depend on it, including the region’s Indigenous Peoples who have lived off salmon for thousands of years, and the robust commercial fishing, sport fishing and tourism industries that drive the region’s economy,” the group said in a release.

The Pebble Partnership, an advocacy group for development, called the decision “unlawful and unprecedented.”

Pebble Partnership spokesperson Mike Heatwole said the next step for the group will most likely be litigation.

“The EPA’s authority to preemptively engage and block the Pebble project, we believe is a violation of the Clean Water Act. We also believe it’s a violation of the Alaska Statehood Act,” Heatwole said.

“For well over a decade, we have argued that fair treatment under the rules and regulations of the U.S should be followed for Pebble or any other development project,” the group wrote in a press release. “Unfortunately, the Biden EPA continues to ignore fair and due process in favor of politics. 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.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Tuesday’s decision sets a dangerous precedent.

“Alarmingly, it lays the foundation to stop any development project, mining or non-mining, in any area of Alaska with wetlands and fish-bearing streams,” Dunleavy said. “My Administration will stand up for the rights of Alaskans, Alaska property owners, and Alaska’s future.”

The Alaska Miner’s Association echoed the Governor’s sentiments, stating their concerns about the broader impacts of the veto. Executive Director Deantha Skibinski suggested that the EPA’s actions jeopardized future investments in Alaska.

“To have the federal government come in and stop the ability of a project to move forward before the process is complete is something that I assure you the entire world is watching when looking at investing dollars in Alaska to build things,” Skibinski said.

“Mines, oil industry activity — anything in Alaska is exorbitantly expensive to develop. When investors are looking to put a tremendous amount of capital into building something Alaska, they are weighing the risks and rewards.”

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a statement that the decision should mark an end to the Pebble project, quoting the late Sen. Ted Stevens in saying it is “the wrong mine in the wrong place”; however, Murkowski stopped short in decrying all mining proposals in the state.

“To be clear: I oppose Pebble,” Murkowski said in the release. “To be equally clear: I support responsible mining in Alaska, which is a national imperative. This determination must not serve as precedent to target any other project in our state and must be the only time EPA ever uses its veto authority under the Clean Water Act in Alaska.”

Alaska’s newest legislator, Democrat Rep. Mary Peltola, said the biggest reason she made the decision to run for Congress in 2022 was to fight for Alaska’s fishing industry, and applauded Tuesday’s decision.

“Today, the EPA listened to Alaskans and helped us do just that,” Peltola said in a statement. “Protecting Bristol Bay, and the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery, has been a bipartisan effort from the very beginning. After decades of regulatory uncertainty, I hope that this ruling gives the people who live and work in Bristol Bay the stability and peace of mind they deserve and the confidence that this incredible salmon run will no longer be threatened.

“I also understand that some Alaskans might be disappointed by this decision. To all of you, know that I am committed to our state’s development and to helping local communities build robust economies with good-paying jobs.”

Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan said that while he opposed Pebble Mine, he did not stand behind the EPA’s preemptive veto of the project that could affect other resource developments around the state, saying it raises “serious legal questions.”

“Since my time as Alaska’s attorney general, I have consistently argued that the EPA does not have the authority to subvert the permitting process and pre-emptively veto this, or any, project in Alaska,” Sullivan said in a statement. “I pressed the EPA administrator to acknowledge that today’s EPA decision does not set a precedent for other major mining and resource projects in Alaska, which he did publicly today. I encourage other Alaska elected leaders to join me in holding the entire Biden administration to this public commitment.”

This is a developing story. Check back for further updates.