The US Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday morning that it is effectively ending the controversial Pebble Mine project in southwest Alaska.
The decision ends a decades-long battle over an area that is not only home to one of the world’s largest deposits of copper and gold, but also the world’s largest wild salmon. The EPA says the mine will cause too much damage to salmon habitat, and it is banning some mining activities on pebble deposits.
Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, called the EPA’s decision historic. It’s a move that some Bristol Bay tribes have been pushing the EPA for 13 years.
“Many of those who started this fight are no longer with us. New generations of our people have been born and raised above the cloud of pebbles,” she said at an EPA press conference on Monday. “But our ancestral responsibility to protect our watersheds and fisheries has united us all to protect the world’s last great wild salmon fishery.”
The EPA is exercising its rarely used veto power under Section 404-C of the Clean Water Act to restrict pebble deposit mining. This is the 14th time in the history of the Clean Water Act and only the third time in the last 30 years that the federal agency has done so.
Hurley thanked the Biden administration multiple times. She pointed to nation-by-nation discussions with the region’s tribes and said the federal government consulted with the tribes when the state government would not. He also said that the tribes would continue their efforts to protect the area.
“Our work will not be done until every inch of our traditional homeland is protected,” she said. “And EPA’s actions today help us build a future where our people can remain Yup’ik, Dena’ina and Alutik for generations to come.”
Before Tuesday, the proposed Pebble mine had already faced serious headwinds. The Pebble Company proposed building an open pit copper and gold mine about 17 miles from Lake Illiana. The US Army Corps of Engineers denied Pebble a federal permit two years ago, and the mining company is appealing that decision.
In a written statement in response to Tuesday’s announcement, Pebble CEO John Shivley said the EPA’s use of its Clean Water Act authority while the appeals process is ongoing is “unlawful and unprecedented” and that doing so is likely to result in legal action. .
“For more than a decade, we have argued that Pebble or any other development project should be accorded fair treatment under US rules and regulations,” Shivli’s statement said. “Unfortunately, Biden continues to ignore fair and due process in favor of EPA politics. This retroactive action against Pebble is not supported legally, technically or environmentally.
The EPA said Tuesday that the mine’s damage to salmon habitat would be “unacceptable.” It said it would damage or destroy 100 miles of streams that support spawning and reproduction and about 2,100 acres of surrounding wetlands.
EPA’s action goes well beyond banning Pebble’s proposed project. It prohibits future projects that would cause similar damage to aquatic resources, and it prohibits the discharge of mined material into the South and North Fork Coctulee Rivers and upper Talarik Creek.
Still, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the determination focused on pebble deposits.
“We know that this particular project will have adverse effects, affecting not only the industry, but also the ecosystem and significant impacts from a cultural perspective as well,” he said.
Radhika Fox, EPA’s assistant administrator for the Office of Water, said the agency’s decision means the Army Corps cannot accept Pebble’s appeal as proposed. But she said it does not ban every future project.
“It provides a roadmap for the types of projects that would create these adverse impacts, but does not apply to other projects that could potentially be considered,” she said. “And it does not apply to any further resource development in the state of Alaska.”
The habitat around the pebble deposits supports a diversity of Bristol Bay’s salmon and many other species, which in turn sustain the area’s Alaska Native communities and support its sport and commercial fisheries, the EPA said.