Gov. Mike Dunleavy vowed Thursday to “fight for Alaska” in court after federal environmental officials announced a veto process to restrict mining in the Bristol Bay region, home to the world’s largest wild salmon fishery.
The proposed Pebble Mine would be located at the headwaters of Bristol Bay and cover more than 150 acres. It would be Alaska’s largest mine.
“This is a fight for the state’s future,” Dunleavy said at a press conference. “You can’t shut down a state’s method by which it creates jobs, opportunities and wealth, and expect it to be a viable state.
At issue is a decision Thursday by the Environmental Protection Agency to restart a legal process, under the Clean Water Act, to provide broad protections for certain waters in the Bristol Bay region.
“The Bristol Bay watershed is an Alaskan treasure that underscores the critical value of clean water in America,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said. “Today’s announcement reinforces once again EPA’s commitment to making science-based decisions to protect our natural environment.”
The EPA previously removed safeguards for the Bristol Bay watershed, under the Trump administration.
Under the new process, called a 404(c) in the Clean Water Act, the EPA will initiate efforts to protect the watershed.
Dunleavy said the EPA's actions may “set a dangerous precedent by allowing a federal agency to preemptively veto any project or permit on state land.”
Miners association opposes decision
Deantha Skibinski, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, joined Dunleavy at Thursday’s press conference in Anchorage.
She described the EPA decision as “just one more piece of evidence that the Biden administration doesn’t want Alaska to have its own sustainable economy.”
An EPA administrator under the Trump administration had allowed the mine operators to apply for a permit. But the Trump administration later halted the mining plan after Fox News host Tucker Carlson, an angler who fishes in the area, spoke against it.
'Last thing the industry needs is more review'
Dunleavy accused the Biden administration of taking a series of actions to impede Alaska’s natural resource-based economy.
The governor noted that earlier this week the U.S. Bureau of Land Management disclosed plans to re-evaluate approved development in the National Petroleum Reserve, an area designated for oil and gas development.
“This means the proposed Willow Project, which could produce up to 100,000 barrels of oil per day, may be derailed,” the governor’s office said in a statement.
“The last thing the industry needs is more review, more taxes or more regulations,” Kara Moriarty, president of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said at the news conference.
The mission of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association is for the long-term viability of Alaska’s largest private industry, which accounts for 25% of jobs in the state.
The oil and gas industry “is the largest tax and royalty payer to the state,” Moriarty said.
After creating a $4 million state defense fund earlier this year, Dunleavy said he will request additional legal funds in the fiscal 2022 budget “to preserve our rights to Alaska’s land and waters.”
The governor said the funds will be used in court to “defend Alaska’s rights and its ability to support itself with responsible and safe natural resource development.”
“Alaska is the energy storehouse for the entire nation, and we have abundant reserves of oil and gas to power the economy and the necessary minerals to transform the nation’s economy with electric vehicles and digital technology,” the governor said.
“In essence, you have the 49th state fighting its own federal government in order for Alaska to fulfill its destiny,” Dunleavy said at the press conference.
Environmental groups laud EPA
Environmental groups in Alaska and nationally lauded the EPA announcement.
The future of the Bristol Bay region has been at the center of a court case that pits environmental groups against developers.
“Placing a massive mine at the headwaters of the world’s greatest, most productive wild sockeye salmon fishery has been a terrible idea from the start, and today’s administrative decision and its commitment to following science and protecting clean water is directly attributable to the decades-long, Tribal-led effort to protect Bristol Bay,” said Kristen Miller, acting executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.
Bristol Bay supports commercial, subsistence and recreational fisheries worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year and that create thousands of jobs, the EPA said.
“Bristol Bay provides more than 50% of the global supply of sockeye salmon, is crucial to sustaining the region’s Indigenous peoples, and is one of the premier destinations for sportsmen in the nation,” Miller said.
A panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in July that the EPA could only remove protections from the Bristol Bay watershed “when an ‘unacceptable adverse effect’ on specified resources was not ‘likely.’”
Plaintiffs cited the potential of acid mine drainage leaching into the watershed and the risk of toxic spills from Pebble Mine.
Plaintiffs in the case include Alaska Wilderness League, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., United Tribes of Bristol Bay and Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.
Pebble Limited Partnership, the mine’s developer, is owned by Northern Dynasty Partnership, based in Canada. The state of Alaska is a party to the lawsuit.