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EPA draws line in the sand to protect salmon in Alaska’s Bristol Bay

The move makes good on the Biden administration’s promise to conserve more of America’s lands and waters while protecting more wilderness from natural resource extraction.

(CN) — Environmentalists in Alaska breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a final determination under the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay, one of the world’s largest and most pristine salmon fisheries, from mining.

For over a decade, Pebble Mine LP has tried to mine a trove of gold and copper near the waters off the coast of the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. But Alaskan Native tribes, commercial fishermen and some locals have repeatedly asserted a mine could compromise the world’s largest salmon run and a local $2.2 billion economy that includes commercial fishing, hunting, outdoor recreation and tourism.

That coalition won an enormous victory in May 2022 when the EPA released a proposed determination that effectively scuttled any plans for mining in the area.

Bristol Bay provides approximately half of the sockeye salmon consumed in the world as one of the most important fisheries economically and ecologically. The EPA’s move to protect the area follows through on a promise by President Joe Biden to conserve more of America’s lands and waters, while protecting a larger portion of the nation’s wilderness from natural resource extraction.

The recommended determination released by the EPA’s Region 10 office in October 2022 — which includes research spanning over two decades — found discharges of dredged or fill material associated with developing the pebble deposit “would be likely to result in unacceptable adverse effects on salmon fishery areas in the South Fork Koktuli River, North Fork Koktuli River and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds of Bristol Bay.”

As such, the EPA’s final determination prohibits Pebble Mine LP from using the rivers as disposal sites for its mine as described within its June 2020 permit application. Additionally, the agency’s determination also prohibits future proposals to construct or operate a mine that would result in the same or greater levels of loss or change to aquatic resources.

Pebble Mine LP has insisted repeatedly its project would not harm the fishery, saying the mine is 100 miles as a crow flies from Bristol Bay. The company also leaned on an environmental analysis by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2020 that found effects to salmon in Bristol Bay are not expected to be measurable.

The company also argued the mine would create high-paying jobs for rural villages within 20 miles of the project, where economic prospects are few and comparatively bleak. The mine would also generate about $150 million in state taxes, according to the company and its supporters.

Pebble Mine LP vowed to sue.

“Today’s action by the EPA to preemptively veto the proposed Pebble project is unlawful and unprecedented. For well over a decade, we have argued that fair treatment under the rules and regulations of the U.S should be followed for Pebble or any other development project. Unfortunately, the Biden EPA continues to ignore fair and due process in favor of politics. This preemptive action against Pebble is not supported legally, technically, or environmentally. As such, the next step will likely be to take legal action to fight this injustice,” the company's CEO Tom Collier said in a statement.

Collier said the mine is an “asset belonging to the people of Alaska,” and that the EPA’s decision violates the state’s Statehood Compact, the ‘no-more’ clause of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and the U.S. Constitution by removing the state and the project’s property interests in the mineral rights underlying the land without compensation.

Those who spent the last decade fighting the mine, however, are singing a different tune.

“After a fierce, decades-long battle waged by the people of Bristol Bay and so many others, EPA today followed the law and science to establish enduring protections for the Bristol Bay watershed under the Clean Water Act,” said Erin Colón, senior attorney for Earthjustice, in a statement. “This is a major victory worth celebrating, but we cannot rest until even more permanent protections are in place. The Bristol Bay watershed is one of the world’s great ecosystems, and the way of life and the abundant future it supports is worth the fight. Earthjustice is committed to continuing to represent those who oppose unlawful and destructive mining projects like the proposed Pebble Mine.”

In 2019, Earthjustice represented Earthworks and several other organizations in a lawsuit to challenge the Trump administration's withdrawal of a 2014 determination that found the mine would have negative effects. At the time of withdrawal, in 2017, the EPA settled with Pebble after the mining company filed three lawsuits against the agency to block its proposed protections.

In 2021, the Ninth Circuit declared the withdrawal unlawful, reinstating the EPA’s prior safeguards against the pebble mine. Since then, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied Pebble's permit for the mine in November 2020, which is currently under appeal.

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