EPA considers more permanent protection for Bristol Bay by resuming Pebble ‘veto’ process

Aerial view of braided wetlands and tundra that is typical of the Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska, July 26, 2010. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday morning that it will resume a process that could result in permanently blocking the proposed Pebble gold mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.

“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,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in the agency’s emailed statement.

The announcement follows the success of mine opponents in a federal lawsuit. Environmental groups, Alaska Native organizations and fishermen sued to prevent the EPA from withdrawing a process begun under the Obama administration to “veto” the mine’s permit, using the Clean Water Act, specifically section 404(c).

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the government can only halt the process if it finds that depositing mined materials into a federally protected waterway would be “unlikely to have an unacceptable adverse effect.” 

The case was sent back to the U.S. District Court. The government filed its response Thursday, essentially saying it is no longer defending the Trump administration’s decision to back out of the Clean Water Act process.

“The agency believes the 2019 withdrawal notice did not meet the Ninth Circuit’s standard,” the EPA said in its announcement Thursday.

Assuming the judge in the case grants the EPA’s request to reverse course, the agency said it would resume the effort to consider Clean Water Act protection for parts of the Bristol Bay watershed.

Bristol Bay Native Corporation Vice President Daniel Cheyette is among those celebrating that the EPA is again trying to protect the area.

“Bristol Bay is economically and culturally built on the region’s fisheries and Pebble threatens that economy and culture,” he said. “And it is simply the wrong mine in the wrong place.”

Pebble Limited Partnership has always maintained that its state-of-the-art design would prevent harmful runoff from reaching important salmon habitat. The company is appealing the U.S. Army Corps’ decision in November denying its permit.

The Pebble deposit is on state land. Gov. Mike Dunleavy criticized the decision. He said the Biden administration is wrong to prohibit development in Alaska and assume it is protecting the environment. At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Dunleavy said such decisions transfer development opportunity overseas.

“What’s the endgame?” he said. “Is the goal to turn Alaska into a subsidiary of the Department of Interior? Is the goal to weaken Alaska and America by depending on” foreign countries for key minerals?

He said the state would fight the feds, using $4 million appropriated by the Alaska Legislature. Dunleavy also said he’s had trouble getting an audience with the Biden administration.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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