The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moved to decisively protect the Bristol Bay watershed under the Clean Water Act, capping more than a decade of a struggle between fishing and environmental groups and would-be developers of the Pebble Mine project.

The EPA’s “final determination” is aimed at protecting the world’s most productive wild salmon fishery from “disposal of dredged or fill materials associated with developing the Pebble deposit,” according to the agency.

“The Bristol Bay watershed is a vital economic driver, providing jobs, sustenance, and significant ecological and cultural value to the region,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in announcing the decision early Tuesday morning. “With this action, EPA is advancing its commitment to help protect this one-of-a-kind ecosystem, safeguard an essential Alaskan industry, and preserve the way of life for more than two dozen Alaska Native villages.”

Fishing and Native advocates cheered the decision they had long fought for.

“For the first time in two decades, our fishermen will head out on the water this fishing season without the existential threat of Pebble Mine looming just upriver,” said Katherine Carscallen, Director of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay. “Thousands of small fishing businesses and industry members are thanking the Biden administration and the Environmental Protection Agency for finalizing Clean Water Act protections which recognize the importance of Bristol Bay, its record-breaking salmon runs, and the irreplaceable sustainable jobs it supports.”

Total economic value, including subsistence uses of the Bristol Bay watershed’s salmon resources, was estimated at more than $2.2 billion in 2019 and 15,000 jobs annually. The Bristol Bay Watershed is home to 25 Alaska Native villages and communities and supports one of the last intact, sustainable salmon-based cultures in the world – providing more than half of the subsistence harvest for some Alaska Native communities in the region.

The decision is a climax in the struggle that has spanned three presidential administrations. Blocked during the Obama years, nearly re-opened by the Trump administration until another reversal under Biden, policy swings over Pebble Mine have also convinced Bristol Bay fishing and environmental groups that only additional permanent protections can keep resource extraction out of the bay watershed.

One step toward that goal was the Pedro Bay Corporation finalizing its December 2022 deal to place 44,000 acres of land into conservation easements, complicating the primary proposed road corridor for Pebble mine. 

“It’s long past time for Pebble to recognize that it will never have a community or legal standing to develop this mine,” said Chris Wood, president, and CEO of Trout Unlimited. Now, it’s time for us to further strengthen protections for the entire Bristol Bay watershed that match the scope of the threat to this special place.” 

In a statement after the EPA announcement, Pebble Limited CEO John Shively said the company will continue its legal challenges to the EPA.

“The EPA is violating the U.S. Constitution by taking away the state and the project’s legally protected property interests in the mineral rights underlying the land, without any just compensation,” said Shively. “This preemptive action against Pebble is not supported legally, technically, or environmentally. As such, the next step will likely be to take legal action to fight this injustice.”

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his administration indicated they too will fight the federal decision.

“EPA’s veto sets a dangerous precedent. Alarmingly, it lays the foundation to stop any development project, mining or non-mining, in any area of Alaska with wetlands and fish-bearing streams,” Dunleavy said after the EPA announcement. “My administration will stand up for the rights of Alaskans, Alaska property owners, and Alaska’s future.”

“The precedent set by this action will percolate throughout the investment community,” said John Boyle, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. “EPA is violating the rights guaranteed by the Alaska Statehood Act through the capricious exercise of its authority, robbing Alaskans of a multi-billion dollar asset on State lands that were specifically selected for their mineral potential without affording the project the predictable, fair, and science-based permitting process that all projects deserve.”

The EPA cited the long record of studies over the potential environmental effects of developing the metals-rich Pebble Formation near Bristol Bay headwaters. Native, fishing, and other groups first raised formal objections in 2010.

“After reviewing the Recommended Determination provided by EPA’s Region 10 office, including the scientific and technical information spanning nearly two decades, EPA has determined that the discharges evaluated in the Final Determination will have unacceptable adverse effects on salmon fishery areas in the South Fork Koktuli River, North Fork Koktuli River, and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds of Bristol Bay,” according to the agency.

“Ecologically valuable streams, wetlands, and other aquatic habitats, like those found in these watersheds, provide the foundation for the productive fishery areas in the region.

In a speech Tuesday on the floor of the Senate, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., dismissed arguments that the Pebble Mine has been used as a partisan issue.

“Republican presidents have used this Clean Water 404(c) authority 11 times…Ronald Reagan alone used the Clean Water Act 404(c) authority eight times. So there was a time when people believed in this conservation,” said Cantwell. 

“To sum it up, a multinational corporation thought that it could go to one of the most iconic salmon runs on the planet, and decimate those jobs that we rely on in Bristol Bay, and tear a hole in the culture of our Northwest fabric. And fishermen and we here said no.”

The decision comes after a record-breaking 2022 sockeye season in Bristol Bay that saw an estimated 79 million fish return.

“Due to the hard work and dedication of the Biden administration and Environmental Protection Agency, our fishermen can now do their jobs without worrying about Pebble Mine destroying Bristol Bay’s iconic salmon runs,” said Andy Wink, Executive Director of the Bristol Bay Seafood Development. “This decision is a huge conservation win that will ensure we can continue to deliver tens of millions of wild sockeye salmon to the market every year, feeding families from coast to coast.”

“Today’s decision may be the most popular thing the federal government has ever done for Alaska,” said Tim Bristol, executive director of the advocacy group SalmonState. “Thousands of Alaskans and over a million Americans from across the political spectrum have called for the protection of Bristol Bay’s one-of-kind salmon resource from massive open pit mining, and today, the EPA delivered.”

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Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for more than 30 years and a 25-year field editor for National Fisherman before joining our Commercial Marine editorial staff in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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