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EPA Moves to Protect Alaska's Bristol Bay, Blocking Major Gold Mine

"Today we celebrate. Tomorrow, we get back to the hard work of seeing this through."

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​Protestors gathered in Dillingham, Alaska
Protestors gathered in Dillingham, Alaska, for a rally against the Pebble Mine on June 6, 2007. Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images

By Jessica Corbett

Conservationists, local tribes, and commercial fishers celebrated on Thursday the Biden administration's move to permanently protect Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed from the proposed Pebble Mine and similarly destructive projects.

"Placing a massive mine at the headwaters of the world's greatest, most productive wild sockeye salmon fishery has been a terrible idea from the start," said Kristen Miller, acting executive director of Alaska Wilderness League, "and today's administrative decision and its commitment to following science and protecting clean water is directly attributable to the decadeslong, tribal-led effort to protect Bristol Bay."


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that the U.S. Department of Justice, in a legal filing, took aim at a decision under former President Donald Trump to strip protections from Bristol Bay.

If the United States District Court for Alaska agrees with the Biden administration, the EPA will be able to reinitiate the process of protecting the area — home to not only sockeye salmon but also copper and gold deposits — under the Clean Water Act.

"The Bristol Bay watershed is an Alaskan treasure that underscores the critical value of clean water in America," said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a statement.

"Today's announcement reinforces once again EPA's commitment to making science-based decisions to protect our natural environment," Regan added. "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."

Robert Heyano, president of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, agreed that the development was "a historic step forward in the long fight to protect Bristol Bay, our fishery, and our people."

"The 15 federally recognized tribes of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay who call this region home have worked for decades to protect our pristine watershed that sustains our sacred Indigenous way of life," Heyano explained. "Today, we applaud Administrator Regan for reinstating the process to consider protections for Bristol Bay and for respecting tribal sovereignty. The people of Bristol Bay are counting on the EPA to listen to the science and finish the job of protecting our lands and waters."

Katherine Carscallen, executive director of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, also welcomed the news, calling it a "pivotal moment" for commercial fishers in the region.

"Our decadeslong, locally led effort to permanently protect Bristol Bay, our thriving commercial fishery, and our communities from the Pebble Mine is finally back on track," Carscallen said. "While we are celebrating today, the last four years have taught us that Bristol Bay is not safe from the Pebble Mine until the EPA completes the Clean Water Act Section 404(c) process. The Biden administration has an opportunity and a responsibility to truly finish the job that the EPA started in 2014 and complete the 404(c) process so that Bristol Bay's fishermen, businesses, and communities can resume our lives free from the threat of the Pebble Mine."

Reporting on the Thursday filing, The New York Times explained:

The move will have little immediate effect because the Trump administration ultimately denied an essential permit for the project, known as Pebble Mine, in 2020. That happened after President Trump's son Donald Trump Jr. and the Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, both of whom enjoyed hunting and fishing in the region, joined environmental activists and Native tribes to oppose the mine in an unlikely coalition.

But environmental activists noted that the decision to reject the permit by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is being appealed by the Pebble Limited Partnership, the company seeking to build the mine. The company wants to dig a pit, more than a mile square and one-third of a mile deep, to obtain the metals, estimated to be worth at least $300 billion. The project would include the construction of a 270-megawatt power plant and 165-mile natural gas pipeline, as well as an 82-mile road and large dammed ponds for the tailings—some of them toxic. It would also require dredging a port at Iliamna Bay.

Given the uncertainty due to ongoing litigation, as Common Dreams has previously reported, local and national campaigners have long called for permanent protections.

"The broad, locally driven coalition working to protect Bristol Bay has learned from experience how quickly political interference can unravel hard-earned progress," said Bonnie Gestring, Earthworks' Northwest program director. "Today we celebrate. Tomorrow, we get back to the hard work of seeing this through. The Biden administration has a responsibility to the people of Bristol Bay to finish the job of establishing permanent protections for the watershed and its salmon."

Environment America's Alaska organizer Dyani Chapman also emphasized the need to permanently protect Bristol Bay while praising the Biden administration's latest move.

"This decision will deliver a massive safeguard for salmon and the other wildlife that depend on the wetlands and streams in the area. With this action, the EPA will prevent what would have been catastrophic damage from one of the largest mining operations in the world," Chapman said. "We look forward to the Biden administration finalizing these protections so that the wildlife and communities near Bristol Bay can continue to safely enjoy clean water."

Noting that "Bristol Bay provides more than 50% of the global supply of sockeye salmon, is crucial to sustaining the region's Indigenous peoples, and is one of the premier destinations for sportsmen in the nation," Miller of Alaska Wilderness League declared that "it's time EPA vetoes the Pebble Mine once and for all."

U.S. lawmakers similarly praised the administration's action to protect the area from destructive mining.

"I'm pleased to see the EPA take responsibility to restart a science-based protection process that was tossed out under the Trump administration," said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.). "There is no time to waste: The EPA must restart their Clean Water Act review to protect Bristol Bay now, before the whims of another nefarious administration derail the process again."

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also blasted the Pebble Mine proposal and expressed relief over EPA's decision.

"By restarting the Clean Water Act review, the EPA has the opportunity to save the Bristol Bay region from certain catastrophe and reverse the dangerous course set by the Trump administration, which ignored both science and common sense," he said. "I have no doubt that this review will reaffirm what we already know: Bristol Bay is no place for an open pit mine."

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) called it an "excellent decision from the administration" before connecting it to a fight against a fossil fuel project in her state: "Now let's protect the Mighty Mississippi and the thousands and thousands of people whose lives depend on it by canceling Line 3."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.

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