The U.S. Environmental Protection agency has followed through on its promise of Clean Water Act protections for Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed, issuing a revised proposal for public comment May 25.
Fishing and environmental groups hope the Biden administration’s move will be fatal to the proposed Pebble Mine, and end more than 20 years of debate over protecting the world’s most productive sockeye salmon habitat from the effects of mining for gold, copper and other metals.
“The Bristol Bay watershed is a shining example of how our nation’s waters are essential to healthy communities, vibrant ecosystems, and a thriving economy,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan in announcing the move Wednesday. “EPA is committed to following the science, the law, and a transparent public process to determine what is needed to ensure that this irreplaceable and invaluable resource is protected for current and future generations.”
The agency issued a revised proposed determination under Clean Water Act Section 404(c) “to prohibit and restrict the use of certain waters in the Bristol Bay watershed as disposal sites for the discharge of dredged or fill material associated with mining the Pebble Deposit. If finalized, EPA’s Section 404(c) determination "would help protect the Bristol Bay watershed’s rivers, streams, and wetlands that support the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery and a subsistence-based way of life that has sustained Alaska Native communities for millennia,” according to the agency.
The determination would prohibit discharges of dredged or fill material associated with mining the Pebble deposit into waters within the mine site footprint as outlined in a 2020 plan, located in the South Fork Koktuli River, North Fork Koktuli River, and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds.
It would also restrict discharges from any future plan to mine the Pebble deposit into certain waters of the South Fork Koktuli River, North Fork Koktuli River, and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds that would result in adverse effects similar to those associated with the 2020 mine plan.
The proposed action would not apply to any other resource development projects in Alaska.
Bristol Bay advocates cheered the news.
“As stewards of these lands and waters since time immemorial, our people welcome this step towards permanent protections for our waters and way of life,” said Alannah Hurley, executive director for the United Tribes of Bristol Bay. “Today’s announcement by the EPA is a good start in this effort. It’s clear the science supports the need for our region’s headwaters to be protected from a mine like Pebble’s impacts, at the site and downstream. We appreciate EPA’s efforts to address the threat Pebble poses to our lands, waters, and way of life in Bristol Bay, and hope to see the agency finalize strong protections this year.”
“This is great news for all those preparing for what should be another incredible fishing season in Bristol Bay,” said Tim Bristol, xecutive director of SalmonState. “Today’s announcement is a key step towards what can and should be one of the Biden Administration's signature achievements, protection of the world's most productive and profitable wild salmon fishery.”
The Bristol Bay coalition plans a June 1 press conference and virtual town hall in Dillingham to discuss the EPA proposal and their next steps to move it forward.
The EPA’s public comment period for proposed measure will end July 5, and include several public hearings: July 16 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. in Dillingham, July 17 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. in Iliamna, and a virtual online hearing June 16 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Public comments can be submitted online at http://www.regulations.gov or emailed to [email protected] with docket number “EPA–R10–OW–2022–0418” in the subject line of the message.
The comment period comes as the Bristol Bay community is looking forward to a potential banner year for sockeye.
“With a predicted record-breaking fishing season kicking off shortly, it couldn’t be more clear what is at stake if Pebble Mine were built: Thousands of jobs, a sustainable economy, and an irreplaceable way of life are all on the line. For years Bristol Bay’s fishermen have been asking the EPA to finalize Clean Water Act protections for our fishery and stop the Pebble Mine,” said Katherine Carscallen, director of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay.
“Before we head out on our boats, we’ll weigh in once again and urge the EPA to protect Bristol Bay’s $2.2 billion dollar sustainable economy and the 15,000 jobs imperiled by the Pebble Mine,” she said.
“Our industry has been operating with the Pebble Mine hanging over us for far too long. This threat has created tremendous uncertainty and risk for our fishermen and seafood processors who have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into fishing boats, fishing permits, and processing plants,” said Andy Wink, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association. “We look forward to the EPA completing its 404(c) process as quickly as possible so that our industry can focus on harvesting and supplying the world with Bristol Bay sockeye.”
Under the Obama administration, the EPA proposed Bristol Bay protections in 2014, but legal challenges from mine backers prevented adoption before the end of Obama’s second term in 2017. The Trump administration opened the door for mining, but then Bristol Bay advocates unexpectedly saw support from some conservatives — including the then-president’s son Donald Trump Jr., an avid angler.
The EPA announced in September 2021 that it would again seek Clean Water Act protections. In its statement this week the agency says the revised measure “evaluates an extensive record of scientific and technical information that spans nearly two decades.”
The agency found that dredged or fill material from mining the Pebble deposit could adversely affect salmon habitat, including “the permanent loss of 8.5 miles of streams would result in fish displacement, injury, and death. The Proposed Determination takes into consideration information that has become available since the Agency’s 2014 proposal—including new scientific analyses and the Pebble Limited Partnership’s 2020 Mine Plan.”
“The total economic value, including subsistence uses, of the Bristol Bay watershed’s salmon resources was estimated at more than $2.2 billion in 2019,” according to the EPA. “The Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishery generates the largest component of this economic activity, resulting in 15,000 jobs and an economic impact of $2.0 billion in 2019, $990 million of which was in Alaska.”