EPA vetoes Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay to protect salmon

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A contentious gold and copper mine project in Alaska may now be off the table after the Biden administration formally restricted mining in the area to protect one of the world’s biggest salmon spawning grounds.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday it has used a provision of the Clean Water Act to block the project, Pebble Mine, and similar operations from the Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska’s southwest. The decision, signed Monday, completes a proposal the administration issued in May. Since then, the agency determined that mining discharge would cause unacceptable damage to the region’s fisheries, it said.

It’s the latest in a series of moves from the federal government and Alaska Native groups that could doom a project to tap ore once valued at $300 billion to $500 billion. The EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — under first the Trump and then the Biden administrations — have both now rejected the development, creating multiple barriers to reviving it that experts say will be difficult to overcome.

Earlier, Obama officials also took action to block the mine, telling the company it could not apply for permits.

“It’s hard for me to imagine a court [overturning] that kind of double shot,” said Bob Perciasepe, a former acting EPA administrator during the Obama administration who also led the air and water divisions during the Clinton administration. “The amount of money that the company would have to continue to be able to put forward to keep the thing active seems difficult.”

Executives at the Pebble partnership — the sole asset of Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals, Ltd. — said they would continue on.

“Unfortunately, the Biden EPA continues to ignore fair and due process in favor of politics,” John Shively, the partnership’s chief executive, said 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.”

Others declared the project to be history.

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“This is the final nail in the coffin for the Pebble Mine,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash). She added the mine “would have devastated Bristol Bay salmon” and the thousands of families that depend on that fishery.

On average, the vast expanse of Bristol Bay sustains an annual run of 37.5 million sockeye salmon, supporting a $2 billion commercial fishing industry as well as a way of life for Alaska Natives. EPA Administrator Michael Regan called it an “irreplaceable and natural wonder.”

The new EPA protections prohibit Pebble’s developers or other similar miners from dumping mine waste into three smaller watersheds that are part of the Bristol Bay network. That is necessary to protect both the region’s fisheries and its culture, the agency said.

Environmentalists and Native groups, which first sought the move more than a decade ago, cheered it this week. Alaska Native groups have vigorously opposed construction and want the developers to abandon the project to protect the local fishing industry and land they consider sacred.

“Today’s announcement is historic progress,” said Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a consortium of tribal governments.

Pebble Limited is entering its third year appealing the Army Corps’ decision from November 2020 to reject permits for the mine site. It has received support from Alaskan leaders, with Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) previously threatening to sue the EPA if it made its own move to more broadly reject mining in the area.

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“EPA’s veto sets a dangerous precedent,” Dunleavy said in a statement anticipating the decision. “It lays the foundation to stop any development project, mining or non-mining, in any area of Alaska with wetlands and fish-bearing streams. My Administration will stand up for the rights of Alaskans, Alaska property owners, and Alaska’s future.”

The Biden administration also came under fire a week ago from Alaskan leaders for its decision to block logging in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. The EPA’s Regan said the agency does not want to hinder economic development in the state and that its Bristol Bay decision is limited to a small, uniquely special area.

The agency invoked a rarely-used authority under the Clean Water Act — often referred to as its veto power — to limit mining within Pebble’s 308-square-mile proposed footprint. While the agency can use this power to block specific projects or permits, it can also more broadly block development across a sensitive area, which is what the agency is doing in Bristol Bay. It is only the third time in 30 years the agency has invoked this power, Regan said.

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“As a source of food and jobs, and a means of preserving sacred indigenous customs and practices, Bristol Bay supports the livelihoods of so many,” Regan said in a call with reporters. He said this final action demonstrates the administration’s commitment to “safeguarding our nation’s indispensable natural resources and protecting the livelihoods of those who so deeply depend on the health and well-being of these magnificent waters.”

Environmentalists said they plan to continue asking Congress for further protections for Bristol Bay and its fisheries. Without them in law, and if the developer and state keep pressing for permits, a future administration could still ultimately reverse the decisions from the EPA and the Army Corps.

“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,” Chris Wood, president of the conservation group Trout Unlimited, said in a statement.

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