EPA blocks mining project proposal that threatened Alaskan salmon

The Environmental Protection Agency has blocked a controversial mining project set for development in Alaska over concerns about adverse effects on salmon fisheries in the area, according to a release from the agency.

The announcement stops the Pebble Mine project, which would have become the largest copper, gold and molybdenum extraction site on the continent. The EPA invoked a seldom-used authority granted as part of the Clean Water Act to put a stop to the proposal.

The Bristol Bay watershed is home to the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, according to data on the EPA’s website. It’s also home to 25 federally-recognized indigenous communities, which rely on salmon for more than half of their subsistence harvest.

“The Bristol Bay watershed is a vital economic driver, providing jobs, sustenance, and significant ecological and cultural value to the region,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said 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.”

Pebble Limited Partnership’s CEO John Shively called the move “unlawful” and said the company would likely take legal action.

The “action by the EPA to preemptively veto the proposed Pebble Project is unlawful and unprecedented,” Shively said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the Biden EPA continues to ignore fair and due process in favor of politics.”

The Final Determination not only applies to the current proposal, but also prohibits any future proposals “to construct and operate a mine to develop the Pebble deposit that would result in the same or greater levels of loss or change to aquatic resources.” It restricts the use of certain areas of the adjacent watersheds — the South Fork Koktuli River, North Fork Koktuli River and Upper Talarik Creek — as planned disposal sites for future proposals if they “would result in adverse effects similar or greater in nature and magnitude to those associated with the 2020 Mine Plan.” Those waters flow directly into the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers, two of the largest rivers in the Bristol Bay watershed.

It’s only the 14th time in the history of the CWA the authority has been exercised, according to the EPA, which the agency says “highlights the value of the Bristol Bay watershed’s fishery resources.”

Republican Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a long-time proponent of the proposal, blasted the decision after its announcement, calling it “a blanket prohibition on development.”

“EPA’s veto sets a dangerous precedent. Alarmingly, it lays the foundation to stop any development project, mining or non-mining, in any area of Alaska with wetlands and fish-bearing streams,” Dunleavy said in a statement.

Other state officials joined the governor in decrying the decision: state Attorney General Treg Taylor said it’s “legally indefensible”; Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Jason Brune called it “draconian”; and the state’s Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said the proposal was “choked off before Alaska’s expert habitat and fish biologists had the opportunity to weigh in.”

The EPA noted that another legal action involving the Pebble Mine is still underway. In 2020, the US Army Corps of Engineers under the Trump administration denied a permit application for the Pebble Limited Partnership. An appeal of that permit denial is ongoing, the EPA said.

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