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A controversial gold and copper mining project in Alaska could now be off the table after the Biden administration officially restricted mining in the region to protect one of the world’s largest salmon spawning grounds.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it used a provision of the Clean Water Act to block the Pebble Mine project and similar operations from the Bristol Bay watershed in southwest Alaska. The decision, signed on Monday, completes a proposal put forward by the administration in May. Since then, the agency has concluded that mining discharges are causing unacceptable damage to fisheries in the region, it said.
It’s the latest in a series of actions by the federal government and Alaska Native groups that could derail an ore development project once worth $300 billion to $500 billion. The EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers — first under the Trump and then the Biden administrations — have both opposed development and created several obstacles to its revival that experts say will be difficult to overcome.
Earlier, Obama officials also took action to block the mine, telling the company it could not apply for permits.
“I have a hard time imagining a dish [overturning] that kind of double shot,” said Bob Perciasepe, a former acting EPA administrator during the Obama administration who also ran the Air and Water Departments during the Clinton administration. “The amount of money the company would have to continue to raise to keep this thing going seems difficult.”
Executives of the Pebble Partnership – the sole asset of Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals, Ltd. – said they would continue.
“Unfortunately, Biden’s EPA continues to ignore fair and due process in favor of politics,” John Shively, the partnership’s executive director, said in a statement. “This preventive measure against Pebble has no legal, technical or environmental support. Therefore, the next step will likely be to take legal action to address this injustice.”
Others declared the project history.
EPA proposes safeguards for world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery
“This is the final nail in the coffin for the Pebble Mine,” said Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash). She added that the mine “would have devastated Bristol Bay salmon” and the thousands of families who depend on this fishery.
On average, the vast expanse of Bristol Bay is home to 37.5 million sockeye salmon annually, supporting a $2 billion commercial fishing industry and a way of life for Alaskan Native people. EPA Administrator Michael Regan called it an “irreplaceable and natural wonder.”
The new EPA safeguards prohibit Pebble developers or other similar miners from dumping mine waste into three smaller watersheds that are part of the Bristol Bay network. This is necessary to protect both the region’s fisheries and culture, the agency said.
Environmentalists and Indigenous groups, who first proposed the move more than a decade ago, hailed it this week. Alaska Native groups have strongly opposed construction and want the developers to abandon the project to protect the local fishing industry and the land they hold sacred.
“Today’s announcement is a historic advance,” said Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a consortium of tribal governments.
Pebble Limited is entering its third year of appeal against the November 2020 Army Corps decision to deny mine site permits. It has garnered support from Alaskan leaders, with Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) previously threatening to sue the EPA if it takes its own step to oppose mining more broadly in the region.
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“The EPA’s veto sets a dangerous precedent,” Dunleavy said in a statement anticipating the decision. “It lays the foundation to stop any development project, mining or non-mining, in any area of Alaska with wetlands and fish-bearing creeks. My administration will stand up for the rights of Alaskans, the owners of Alaska, and the future of Alaska.”
The Biden administration also came under fire from Alaskan leaders a week ago for its decision to block logging in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. EPA’s Regan said the agency does not want to impede the state’s economic development and its decision on Bristol Bay is limited to a small, unique area.
In a statement, the National Mining Association said Pebble will increase mineral supplies at a time when the Biden climate agenda emphasizes the need for more domestic sources.
“This final run of the due permitting process creates significant regulatory uncertainty for the mining industry during a crunch point in mineral demand,” the group said.
The agency invoked a seldom-used authority under the Clean Water Act — often referred to as its veto power — to limit mining within Pebble’s proposed 308-square-mile area. While the agency can use this power to block specific projects or permits, it can also block development more broadly in a sensitive area, which the agency does in Bristol Bay. It’s only the third time in 30 years that the agency has invoked that power, Regan said.
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“As a source of food and jobs, as well as a means of preserving sacred indigenous customs and practices, Bristol Bay supports the livelihoods of so many people,” Regan said in an interview with reporters. He said this latest measure demonstrates the government’s commitment to “protecting our nation’s vital natural resources and safeguarding the livelihoods of those who depend so heavily on the health and well-being of these magnificent bodies of water.”
Environmentalists said they plan to continue asking Congress for further protection for Bristol Bay and its fisheries. Without them in law, and if the developer and state continue to push for permits, a future administration could still ultimately reverse EPA and Army Corps decisions.
“It is time we committed to permanent conservation measures for the entire Bristol Bay watershed commensurate with the level of threat to this special place,” Chris Wood, president of conservation group Trout Unlimited, said in a statement.
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