E.P.A. Moves to Block Controversial Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska

The Mulchatna River, which lies within the Bristol Bay watershed, hosts spawning grounds for all five Pacific salmon species. Environmental Protection Agency

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it is blocking a massive open-pit mine proposed for the headwaters of Bristol Bay, a world-famous salmon fishery in southwestern Alaska. The project—known as Pebble Mine—has been the source of fierce controversy since its inception in 2005. In a move that it says is designed to “protect the most productive salmon fishery in the world”, the EPA has invoked section 404 (c) of the Clean Water Act—stopping the proposed Pebble project in its tracks by prohibiting the disposal of waste materials that the mine would have emitted into the Bristol Bay watershed.

At roughly two miles long and 1,700 hundred feet deep, Pebble would have been the largest open-pit gold and copper mine in the world. According to the New York Times, tens of millions of tons of rock would need to be removed and processed for mine operators to access the large stores of copper, gold, and molybdenum located underneath Bristol Bay, deposits believed to be worth several hundred billion dollars.

“After reviewing … scientific and technical information spanning nearly two decades, the EPA has determined that the discharges … will have unacceptable adverse effects on [the] salmon fishery,” the agency wrote in a press release posted to its website this morning. “With this action, the EPA is limiting the disposal of dredged and fill material associated with developing the Pebble deposit in certain waters that are important to sustaining the region’s salmon resources.”

The star at the center of this map shows the approximate location of the proposed Pebble Mine. Environmental Protection Agency

The announcement is part of a series of large-scale environmental protections that have been handed down by the Biden Administration in recent days. Last Wednesday, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) restored roadless area protections to several millions of acres inside the Tongass National Forest of southeast Alaska. And a day later, the Department of the Interior (DOI) issued a public lands order that effectively halted all hard rock mining upstream of the famed Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, located in far northeastern Minnesota, for the next twenty years.

Hunting- and fishing-focused conservation organizations are heralding today’s EPA announcement as a big win for the environmental integrity of Bristol Bay—and the future of Alaska’s hunting and fishing heritage. “Today is a momentous occasion for the millions of hunters and anglers who have raised our voices for Bristol Bay,” said John Gale, vice president of policy and government relations for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “The region’s wild rivers support the world’s largest remaining wild salmon fishery, 35 fish species, and nearly half of all wild sockeye populations. It also provides undisturbed habitat for moose, caribou, brown bears, black bears, and large populations of migratory waterfowl. Some places are too important to develop. Bristol Bay is one of them.”

While recreational salmon fishing is popular in Bristol Bay, the area also supports the largest commercial fishery for sockeye salmon in the world. Back in July 2022, the sockeye run outpaced the largest number ever recorded in the history of Bristol Bay.

Chinook salmon are abundant in Bristol Bay. Environmental Protection Agency

The area’s abundant salmon runs provide subsistence for the the Yup’ik, Dena’ina, and Alutiiq tribes, Indigenous Alaskans with ancestral roots in Bristol Bay. “For our people, from an Indigenous perspective, just knowing that this threat isn’t hanging over us any longer is so liberating,” said Alana Hurley, a Yup’ik commercial and subsistence fisher based out of Dillingham, Alaska, in a recent interview with High Country News. “In terms of being able to refocus our energy into all these other areas that need our focus, and our hearts and minds to be attuned to, [this] is going to be huge. It’s a new day for us.”

According to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), the most recent EPA comment period concerning the Bristol Bay watershed produced “overwhelming public support” for blocking Pebble Mine. “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 TRCP Alaska program manager Jen Leahy. “The hunt-fish community is thrilled to know that another layer of safeguards now exists for the headwaters of Bristol Bay.”

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The embattled corporation behind the Pebble Mine project, the Canadian-owned Pebble Limited Partnership, has already voiced its strong opposition to the EPA’s use of the Clean Water Act in this case. “The Biden E.P.A. continues to ignore fair and due process in favor of politics,” said John Shively, the company’s chief executive, in a statement provided to the New York Times. “This pre-emptive action against Pebble is not supported legally, technically, or environmentally.”

In a summary of its Final Determination on the issue, the EPA said that, while rare, its invocation of veto power under section 404 (c) of the Clean Water Act is based on sound scientific and technical research spanning more than two decades. “[The] watershed produces approximately half of the world’s Sockeye Salmon, and salmon fisheries are a huge economic driver in the region, supporting approximately 15,000 jobs annually and generating an estimated $2.2 billion in 2019 alone,” the agency wrote. “[The] diverse and largely undisturbed aquatic habitats and productive salmon populations form the foundation of a globally significant ecological and cultural resource.”

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