Lawsuits Pile Up Over EPA’s Green Light for Mine Near Pristine Alaskan Bay

The Nushagak River, draining into Bristol Bay in Alaska. (AlaskaTrekker via Wikipedia)

(CN) – A proposed open-pit gold and copper mine approved by the federal government faces considerable legal pushback from Alaskan environmental and fishing groups, claiming the project would taint the watershed for local wildlife, including starving the headwaters that sustain the world’s largest wild salmon run.

Bristol Bay spans some 40,000 square miles and includes two national parks, and its salmon are critically linked to the Alaskan culture and economy – generating over $1 billion annually. The proposed Pebble Mine near the remote village of Dillingham in southwestern Alaska would industrialize the waterways and negatively impact the region’s economy, according to multiple federal complaints filed against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its chief staff this week.

The plaintiffs claim the proposed mining operation would destroy thousands of acres of surrounding habitat and choke miles of salmon stream.

A large deposit of gold, copper and molybdenum were first discovered in the 1980s at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, but multinational corporations earnestly began to pursue development in the early 2000s.

The Obama administration shelved the proposed mine in 2014. But this year, President Donald Trump met with Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy during a stopover on his way to the G-20 summit and shortly after, the EPA withdrew a scientific determination made by the Obama EPA and put the Pebble Mine back on the path to reality.

On Wednesday, the Natural Resources Defense Council and 13 other environmental groups added their lawsuit to ones filed this week by the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., United Tribes of Bristol Bay and Alaska-based nonprofit Trout Unlimited seeking to end the quest to dig Pebble Mine.

The local groups say the mine will negatively affect the area’s streams, wetlands, lakes and ponds, and destroy the nature of a region built on its salmon runs.

“We literally live and breathe it every day,” said Norman Vactor, CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. “This is a threat that our communities have been dealing with for quite a while.”

Vactor’s group accuses the EPA of ignoring its own rules when it ditched the Obama-era scientific determination. The other lawsuits make similar claims, calling the EPA’s actions arbitrary, capricious and not in accordance with the Clean Water Act and blasting the agency’s failure to explain or publicly acknowledge its reversal.

“These reasons are arbitrary and contradict EPA’s prior findings. EPA has not articulated a rational connection between the availability of new information and its decision to withdraw the proposed determination,” the 14 environmental groups say in their 45-page complaint.

All the plaintiffs want a judge to vacate the EPA’s withdrawal of the Obama-era determination.

Emails to the EPA and Dunleavy’s office for comment were not immediately answered by press time.

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