A proposed mine project in Alaska may have been dealt its final blow. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) effectively vetoed the project, citing its potential harm to salmon fisheries in the state’s Bristol Bay watershed.
Called Pebble Mine, the proposed development included a mile-wide open-pit mine, a power plant, a gas pipeline, access roads and a port to take advantage of gold and copper deposits thought to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
The EPA issued a final determination last week, banning the local disposal of dredged waste from building and operating the mine. This dumping would have “unacceptable adverse effects” on local waters, including around 100 miles of streams and 2,000 acres of important breeding grounds for the bay’s salmon, per the agency.
“The Bristol Bay watershed is a vital economic driver, providing jobs, sustenance and significant ecological and cultural value to the region,” says EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a statement. “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.”
Bristol Bay is home to the largest commercial sockeye salmon fishery in the world, estimated to provide half the global supply of sockeye salmon. Additionally, as the homeland of the Yup’ik, Dena’ina and Alutiiq peoples, it is also an important source for traditional subsistence food for Native people.
“For our people, from an Indigenous perspective, just knowing that this threat isn’t hanging over us any longer is so liberating,” Yup’ik fisher and activist Alannah Hurley says to High Country News’ Victoria Petersen. “In terms of being able to refocus our energy into all these other areas that need our focus and our hearts and minds to be attuned to is going to be huge. It’s a new day for us.”
Over its two decades of existence, the proposal for Pebble Mine has proven controversial. Some legislators, industry groups and Native people have supported the project to advance economic development and reduce the United States’ reliance on precious metals from foreign nations.
Others, however, opposed the project on the grounds that it will harm the salmon population and those that depend on it, including Native communities and the fishing industry. Members of these groups cheered the EPA’s decision.
“It’s a victory for science over politics. For biodiversity over extinction. For democracy over corporate power,” Joel Reynolds, western director and senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, tells Becky Bohrer and Patrick Whittle of the Associated Press (AP).
Not only has the project faced fierce public debate, but it also had a bumpy legislative history. The EPA proposed blocking the project in 2014 but reversed the decision and reopened the permitting process in 2019. The following year, the Army Corps of Engineers rejected a permit for the development. Recently, an Alaska Native corporation and land conservation groups purchased easements to permanently protect land that had been seen as the best site to construct a transport route for the project.
After all this turbulence, the EPA’s decision is “the final nail in the coffin for the Pebble Mine,” says Washington Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, one of the first legislators to voice opposition to the project, to the AP. “Now, we will have a thriving Bristol Bay salmon run for generations to come.”
Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski says in a statement that she opposes Pebble but continues to support “responsible mining” in Alaska. She adds that the EPA’s decision should not set a precedent for further vetoes on developments in the state.
Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA can use a so-called “veto power” to specifically restrict dumping dredged material in areas where it will negatively affect waters. But the agency doesn’t often do this—the Pebble project marks only the third time in three decades that the EPA has exercised this authority.
John Shively, CEO of project developer Pebble Limited Partnership, says in a statement that the EPA’s action against the mine “is not supported legally, technically, or environmentally,” and the company would likely pursue legal action.
Alaska officials, including Governor Mike Dunleavy and Attorney General Treg Taylor, also issued a statement criticizing the decision for setting a “dangerous precedent” and attempting to “short circuit the Corps’ appeals process and the State’s permitting process.”
Regan notes to Henry Fountain of the New York Times that the EPA’s move could be challenged in a federal court, and Pebble’s fate could also be altered by future administrations. Still, he tells the Times, “we’re committed to making science-based decisions within our regulatory authority that will provide durable protections for people and the planet. … And that’s exactly what we’re doing today.”
As for the future of the Bristol Bay area, Hurley says to High Country News that she hopes her community can provide “a model to the world of what sustainability could and should look like while respecting Indigenous people, Indigenous peoples’ rights and the critical Indigenous leadership role they play in sustainability for the globe.”
“We want to be able to protect our lands and waters into the future, for our future generations and for the people that are to come after us, so they can continue being Yup’ik, Dena’ina and Alutiiq for generations to come,” she tells the publication. “We have to prioritize the protection of our lands and waters for that to happen.”