EPA Seeks to Protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay From Pebble Mine

September 09, 2021

The EPA said Thursday it will seek to vacate a Trump-era decision that removed obstacles for the massive gold and copper Pebble Mine project to be built in southwestern Alaska.

If a federal court agrees to remand and vacate the 2019 withdrawal notice, the Environmental Protection Agency’s review process under the Clean Water Act would be restarted, and the agency would announce a schedule for “resuming a process to protect certain waters in the Bristol Bay watershed—including opportunities for public input,” the agency said.

In 2019, the EPA issued a notice withdrawing an Obama-era determination from 2014 issued under the Clean Water Act. The 2014 determination proposed water pollution limits for the mine, but those limits were never finalized.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, then-candidate Joe Biden vowed to block the project, calling the area “no place for a mine” and noting the EPA had reached the same conclusion while he was vice president.

“The Bristol Bay watershed is an Alaskan treasure that underscores the critical value of clean water in America,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “What’s at stake is preventing pollution that would disproportionately impact Alaska Natives, and protecting a sustainable future for the most productive salmon fishery in North America.”

Environmentalist Praise

Environmentalists, local native groups, and Democrats in Congress were quick to applaud the EPA’s announcement.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who has led House efforts to block funding for Pebble’s federal permitting process, tweeted that “communities and wildlife that depend on a healthy environment should not have to face continual threats from unrelenting environmental atrocities like the Pebble Mine.”

Robert Heyano, president of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, called the move “a historic step forward in the long fight to protect Bristol Bay, our fishery, and our people.”

The announcement also fulfills Biden’s commitments to support tribal nations and conserve 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030, said Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president for energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress.

“In a year of climate-fueled extreme weather disasters across the nation, and as salmon disappear from the rest of the country, Bristol Bay’s record-breaking salmon catches have sustained the traditional lifestyles of more than two dozen tribes and the robust commercial fishery key to southwest Alaska’s economy,” Goldfuss said.

The Pebble Mine ore deposit would yield an average of 318 million pounds of copper, 362,000 ounces of gold, 14 million pounds of molybdenum, and 1.8 million ounces of silver annually, according to the Pebble Partnership. The company has also said it expects to employ more than 2,000 full-time workers through the mine’s first 20 years of production.

Rick Whitbeck, Alaska state director at the pro-energy group Power The Future, said the potential economic impacts of stopping the mine are “tremendous” in the region.

“In order for the Biden administration to realize its desired ‘green revolution’, it needs incredible amounts of copper, and that can either be mined under strict environmental standards at Pebble and other domestic projects, or irresponsibly mined somewhere else,” Whitbeck said. “The people of our state deserve better than to be subjected to these shenanigans.”

(Updates with additional reporting throughout.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergindustry.comRebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com

By:  Stephen Lee
Source: Bloomberg Law