September 9, 2021 The Biden administration’s move to invoke its Clean Water Act authority marks a major blow for the project, which is near the world’s largest sockeye salmon run.
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.
In the filing, the EPA said it plans 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.”
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 an environmental-impact statement from 2020 “states that the project can be done without harm to the region’s fisheries or water resources.”
“As the Bidena Administration seeks lower carbon emissions for energy production, they should recognize that such change will require significantly more mineral production — notably copper,” he added. “The Pebble Project remains an important domestic source for the minerals necessary for the administration to reach its green energy goals.”
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, in exchange for compensation the federal government would provide Alaska for potentially lost revenue.
(The Washington Post)
During the presidential campaign, Joe Biden vowed to reinstate protections for the near-pristine 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 in 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 blocked 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.
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,” Chris Wood, president of the anglers’ group Trout Unlimited, said in an interview from Alaska’s Kvichak River, which feeds into Bristol Bay. The river is teeming with so many fish it looks 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 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 effectively blocks 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 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 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.
But since this action has been reversed once before, Hurley also cautioned that the administration will have to finalize this veto.
“And so Bristol Bay is not going to be protected until this process is complete,” she said.
… And we are rejoicing for the salmon, the trees, the water, the land, the First Peoples, the water protectors.
Article from the Washington Post September 9, 2021