WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that it would restore protections for Alaska’s Bristol Bay, blocking the construction of a massive and controversial gold mine near the world’s largest sockeye salmon run.
The policy shift, indicated in a court filing Thursday in response to a lawsuit filed by the mine’s opponents, deals a serious blow to a project that has been in the works for more than a decade and would have transformed southwest Alaska’s landscape.
Pebble Limited Partnership, the U.S. subsidiary of Canada’s Northern Dynasty Minerals, argued that its proposed mine had the potential to be one of the most important metal-producing projects of the 21st century.
But a coalition of Alaska Natives, environmentalists, fishing operators and recreational anglers — including some prominent Republicans such as Donald Trump Jr. — countered that it was too risky to start a hard-rock mine at the headwaters of a fishery teeming with sockeye, coho, chum and pink salmon that has provided generations with a vital food source and lured fishing enthusiasts from around the globe.
This summer’s return of Bristol Bay sockeye was a record run of more than 65.5 million fish. These fish were caught by some 2,500 fishermen and crews, and the permit holders include some 650 Washington-based gillnetters.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., for more than a decade has warned about the damage the Pebble Mine could bring, and in 2014 called on the EPA to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to block the project.
In the filing Thursday, the EPA said it does plan to invoke its powers under the Clean Water Act to ensure the region’s waters are not filled in or contaminated by material from the proposed open-pit mining site.
“It is essential to the livelihood and the community well-being of many Alaskan tribes. And it is also one of the most productive salmon fisheries in North America,” Radhika Fox, head of the EPA’s Office of Water, said in an interview Thursday.
Bristol Bay, she added, “is a unique resource that needs unique protection.”
Cantwell, in a Thursday statement, said she applauded the Biden administration’s move and will continue to fight to finalize the proposed protections.
Asked to comment Thursday, Pebble Limited Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole said in an email, “We will continue to monitor these developments closely to determine the possible impacts to the project and permitting process.”
Heatwole noted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concluded in July 2020 that the mine would have no “measurable effect” on area fish populations. The Corps determined the following month, however, that the project would probably cause “significant degradation of the environment” and found it could not be permitted as currently planned.
“As the Biden administration seeks lower carbon emissions for energy production, they should recognize that such change will require significantly more mineral production – notably copper,” Heatwole added. “The Pebble Project remains an important domestic source for the minerals necessary for the administration to reach its green energy goals.”
The Corps has projected the operation would generate $150 million a year in state and local taxes, and the company says it would produce 850 direct jobs.
The EPA’s move does not ensure the area’s permanent protection and could be reversed by a subsequent administration. But coming on the heels of setbacks the project suffered last fall, it could hamper the company’s ability to raise capital going forward.
Lawmakers, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, have also raised the idea of passing legislation to put Bristol Bay off limits to development.
During the presidential campaign, Joe Biden vowed to reinstate protections for the bay. But the proposed Pebble Mine was in peril well before he took office.
The expanse of streams and marshland roughly 200 miles southwest of Anchorage contains two treasures. Locked underground is billions of dollars’ worth of gold, copper and molybdenum, an important alloy in many types of steel. Above that layer of ore are salmon spawning grounds that sustain a commercial fishing industry that generates more than $2 billion every year.
The Obama administration initially proposed blocking the project in 2014 due to what it called the “unacceptable environmental effects” that an open-pit mine posed to the region’s ecologically and economically valuable habitats. It did not, however, finalize that determination.
The Bristol Bay watershed, unlike the waters of many other salmon fisheries, requires no hatcheries to raise and release fish into its rivers. The Obama administration projected that mining activity could destroy 1,200 acres of wetlands, lakes and ponds.
President Donald Trump’s first EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, reversed that finding and allowed the mine operators to apply for a permit. But the Trump administration eventually shelved the mining plan after the release of embarrassing secret recordings of the mine’s sponsors as well as sustained opposition from Fox News host Tucker Carlson and other leading conservatives who like to fish in the area.
“It’s hard to describe how undeveloped it is,” said Trout Unlimited President Chris Wood in an interview Wednesday as he stood near Alaska’s Kvichak River. Wood, whose group sued the EPA, described the river feeding into Bristol Bay as teeming with so many fish that it looked like a “sea of red from the room where I’m standing.”
He noted how difficult it is to restore a salmon population once it has declined. More than $17 billion spent to restore salmon and steelhead in the Snake River and its tributaries in the Pacific Northwest has largely fallen short, he said.
“All we have to do to keep this place intact is to leave it alone,” he said.
Some of the most concerted opposition to Pebble Mine has come from the people who live closest to its planned site.
In June, shareholders of the Pedro Bay Corp., an Alaska Native group that owns land near Bristol Bay, voted to let the environmental nonprofit Conservation Fund buy conservation easements on more than 44,000 acres and make the land off-limits to future development. That agreement could block a mining road the Pebble Limited Partnership has indicated that it would use to transport ore from its operation.
In addition, a coalition of 15 federally recognized tribes launched a campaign this summer for President Biden to “finish the job” by blocking the mine. Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, described the decision to restart the EPA protection process as a “monumental step in the right direction.”
“Those protections are something that our tribes have been fighting for literally almost two decades now,” she said.
The tribes represent a majority of the population in the Bristol Bay area. And they understood that the Pebble Mine project represented an existential threat to their way of life and reliance on salmon, she said. But for many years their concerns fell on deaf ears, and they felt like they were “screaming underwater, with nobody hearing us.”
But opposition to the project has grown over the years, she added. “When the average person hears about putting a mega-mine in the spawning grounds and headwaters of the world’s last great sockeye salmon fishery, it doesn’t add up economically or ethically.”
The EPA has used its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to block a major project only a dozen other times. “It is a rarely used authority, and it’s one that we will use sparingly,” said Fox, the agency’s top water official.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska still needs to sign off the EPA’s decision to restart a protection process, which may take months to complete.
Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Joel Reynolds called the EPA’s announcement “a big step” but added federal legislation would provide more-lasting safeguards. “We need congressional action.”
Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this report.