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EPA blocks mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed

Decision to protect salmon fisheries may face court challenges

A fishing boat captian navigates past the canneries and fish-processing plants along the Naknek River on the way to fish the waters of Bristol Bay.
A fishing boat captian navigates past the canneries and fish-processing plants along the Naknek River on the way to fish the waters of Bristol Bay. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

A proposed gold and copper mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed was vetoed by the EPA Tuesday, setting up a potential legal battle with the developer and the state.

The so-called “final determination” prevents Pebble Limited Partnership, a subsidiary of the Canadian firm Northern Dynasty Minerals, from using certain waters in the Bristol Bay watershed from being used as disposal sites for dredged or fill material from construction and routine operation of a mine plan put forward in a 2020 Clean Water Act permit application.

It would prohibits future proposals to construct a mine in the region that would result in similar adverse effects on the surrounding area.

[Both sides dig in as EPA’s final decision on Pebble Mine nears]

“After extensive review of scientific and technical research spanning two decades, we’ve determined that certain discharges associated with developing the Pebble deposit will have unacceptable adverse effects on salmon fishery areas,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a call with reporters ahead of the announcement.

In 2014 the Obama administration preemptively vetoed the project citing its potential environmental impact. The Pebble Limited Partnership nevertheless sought a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers in 2017, and in 2019 the Trump administration withdrew the preemptive veto.

The corps released an environmental impact statement favorable to the mine, but after considerable lobbying against the project, including by conservatives such as Donald Trump Jr. and Tucker Carlson, it ultimately denied a permit for the developer in November 2020. Pebble Limited Partnership has appealed that decision, which is separate from the EPA’s announcement.

The Biden administration announced it would revisit the proposed veto in 2021, and its finalization appeared likely after EPA Region 10 recommended last month that the project be blocked after a formal recommendation found the mine would result in the loss of nearly 100 miles of stream habitat if it was constructed and operated as outlined in the 2020 plan.

Northern Dynasty first began exploring the site located on Alaska state land in 2002, and the company calls it “the most significant undeveloped copper and gold resource in the world.” Since then it has drawn strong opposition from many Native Alaskan communities and others who depend upon the watershed, one of the largest salmon fisheries in North America. The fishery’s value was estimated at over $2.2 billion in 2019, and the EPA said it supported 15,000 jobs annually.

“From the beginning of this battle almost 20 years ago, our people have stood strong against the threat of the Pebble Mine to protect their lands and waters,” said Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay. “To say that the EPA announcement today is welcome news is an understatement.”

Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, while acknowledging that some in the state may be disappointed, celebrated the decision and said that rebuilding salmon runs and protecting fisheries was the No. 1 reason she ran for Congress.

“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,” Peltola said in a statement.

Alaska’s Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have both opposed the mine but have also opposed the EPA’s pursuit of a final determination over concerns that it could be used as a precedent to halt other projects in the state. Murkowski said in a statement that while the final determination should mark the end of the Pebble mine, the Biden administration has a responsibility to advance other projects int the state “to help reduce our foreign dependence and prevent looming shortages

Republican Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in December that the state would sue the EPA if the veto was finalized, referring to it as a “troubling precedent.”

The move comes a week after the Interior Department issued a 20-year moratorium on mining in a region of northeast Minnesota upstream from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In both cases the mine operators said their minerals would be necessary for the transition to renewable energy. The administration, however, found there was a greater risk to the surrounding environment.

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