EPA Moves to Protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay from Massive Mining Project

A little-used provision of the Clean Water Act could help feds preserve salmon in one of North America’s most prolific fisheries.

Humpaback whale in Bristol Bay, Alaska
Enrique Aguirre Aves / Getty Images

The word “Alaska” comes from the word “Alyeska,” an Aleutian term that means “great land.” It’s a fitting term for such a majestic place. As great as it is, however, some people might argue that Alaska’s best feature isn’t its land, but rather its water. After all, the state is home to more than 3 million lakes, 12,000 rivers, over 6,600 miles of coastline, and over 47,000 miles of tidal shoreline.

All that water makes Alaska an Eden for anglers, who flock to the state’s marine resources in droves to avail themselves of its fishy fruit. Unfortunately, one of their favorite places is also one of Alaska’s most threatened: mineral-rich Bristol Bay, which is the planned site of Pebble Mine, a proposed gold and copper operation that could become North America’s largest mine.

That is, if it’s built. Thanks to new action taken this month by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it’s looking less likely that it will be.

Plans for Pebble Mine have been debated publicly since the project was first floated nearly 20 years ago. In 2014, the Obama administration proposed blocking the project because of “unacceptable environmental effects,” citing an obscure provision of the Clean Water Act that allows the EPA to prohibit or restrict industrial activities that might have a negative impact on environmental resources. The administration argued that the project’s open-pit design could destroy 1,200 acres of wetlands, lakes, and ponds that are fertile spawning grounds for sockeye, coho, chum, and pink salmon. Along with a rich commercial fishing industry that supports thousands of jobs, those fish are vital to other species—including more than 20 fish species, 190 bird species, and more than 40 terrestrial mammal species, including bears, moose, and caribou—not to mention Alaska Natives, whose subsistence-based lifestyle has included salmon fishing for over 4,000 years.

Former President Donald Trump’s EPA subsequently reversed the Obama administration’s position in 2019 and allowed the mine’s developer to apply for a permit—which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied to the surprising delight of Republicans like Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who typically resist environmental regulations but publicly opposed Pebble Mine because they personally enjoy fishing Bristol Bay.

Now, in yet another reversal of federal sentiment, President Joe Biden’s EPA is reinstating the government’s Obama-era stance: On Sept. 9, it asked a federal court to permit the aforementioned Clean Water Act protections for Bristol Bay. If the court agrees, the EPA could begin the process of instituting long-term protections for the Bristol Bay watershed.

“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. “Today’s announcement reinforces once again EPA’s commitment to making science-based decisions to protect our natural environment. 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.”

At the center of the EPA’s strategy is Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, which requires industry to seek a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in order to discharge dredged or fill material into certain streams, wetlands, lakes, and ponds. To make its permit decisions, the Corps relies on environmental criteria created by the EPA, which under Section 404(c) also is empowered to constrain or even block discharge activities when it deems them to have a negative environmental impact.

In the 50-year history of the Clean Water Act, the EPA has exercised its Section 404(c) authority only 13 times. Alaska Natives are hoping that Bristol Bay will be No. 14.

“[Section 404(c)] protections are something that our tribes have been fighting for for literally almost two decades now,” Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, told The Washington Post in an interview, during which she called the EPA’s latest move a “monumental step in the right direction.”

Pebble Limited Partnership, the entity behind Pebble Mine, has defended its project, which it claims will actually advance environmental objectives by enabling a shift to clean energy.

View Article Sources
  1. "Alaska's Fishing Industry." Resource Development Council.