Alaska in Brief

EPA moves to prevent Pebble mine development in Bristol Bay watershed

By: - May 25, 2022 1:59 pm
An anti-Pebble sticker is displayed in 2010 on a pole at the harbor in Cordova, Alaska. The fight over the proposed mine, which would be located upstream of salmon-rich Bristol Bay, has been waged since the early 2000s. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

An anti-Pebble sticker is displayed in 2010 on a pole at the harbor in Cordova, Alaska. The fight over the proposed mine, which would be located upstream of salmon-rich Bristol Bay, has been waged since the early 2000s. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The Biden administration has officially revived an Obama-era plan that would put the Bristol Bay watershed off-limits to the proposed Pebble Mine or any similar project.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday announced its intention to invoke a rarely used provision of the Clean Water Act to prevent the issuance of any wetlands-fill permit for a Pebble-sized metals mine.

Bristol Bay supports one of the world’s most important salmon fisheries,” Casey Sixkiller, EPA’s Region 10 administrator, said in a statement. “Two decades of scientific study show us that mining the Pebble Deposit would cause permanent damage to an ecosystem that supports a renewable economic powerhouse and has sustained fishing cultures since time immemorial. Clearly, Bristol Bay and the thousands of people who rely on it deserve the highest level of protection.”  

If made final, the decision – known as a Section 404(c) determination after that part of the Clean Water Act – would bar deposits of Pebble wastes into specific rivers and creek waters in the Bristol Bay watershed.

Fishing, environmental and Native groups that have spent decades fighting against the mine plan celebrated the announcement.

 “Our industry has been operating with the Pebble Mine hanging over us for far too long. This threat has created tremendous uncertainty and risk for our fishermen and seafood processors who have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into fishing boats, fishing permits, and processing plants. We look forward to the EPA completing its 404(c) process as quickly as possible so that our industry can focus on harvesting and supplying the world with Bristol Bay Sockeye,” Andy Wink, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, said in a statement.

But the company seeking to build the huge copper and gold mine criticized the decision as political.

“This is clearly a giant step backwards for the Biden Administration’s climate change goals. I find it ironic that the President is using the Defense Production Act to get more renewable energy minerals such as copper into production while others in the Administration seek political ways to stop domestic mining projects such as ours,” John Shively, president of the Pebble Limited Partnership, said in a statement released by Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., the sole owner of the partnership.

“This preemptive effort is clearly a political maneuver to attempt to block our ability to work through that established process,” Shively said.

It is the latest turn in a long saga over Pebble, a proposed mine that supporters say would provide massive economic benefits but that opponents say would ruin habitat that supports the world’s largest wild salmon runs and damage the industries, communities and wildlife that depends on that salmon.

The Obama administration in 2011 launched a Bristol Bay watershed assessment that resulted in a 2014 plan to invoke Section 404(c)  to bar permitting of a Pebble-sized metals mine. Litigation ensued, and in one of its first acts, the Trump administration settled with the mine’s developers by killing the Bristol Bay watershed protection plan. But in 2020, the Trump administration denied a key wastewater permit the Pebble Partnership was seeking. The company has appealed that denial.

EPA’s announcement kicks off a public process. Comments will be accepted through July 5, the agency said. In-person public hearings are scheduled for mid-June in the Bristol Bay communities of Dillingham and Newhalen, and an online public hearing is also scheduled.


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Yereth Rosen
Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen came to Alaska in 1987 to work for the Anchorage Times. She has been reporting on Alaska news ever since, covering stories ranging from oil spills to sled-dog races. She has reported for Reuters, for the Alaska Dispatch News, for Arctic Today and for other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns -- subjects with a lot of overlap. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son's hockey games.