Calling the Bristol Bay watershed a vibrant ecosystem, the head of the EPA announced Wednesday a plan to limit dredge disposal at the Pebble Mine development site.
“The Bristol Bay watershed is a shining example of how our nation’s waters are essential to healthy communities, vibrant ecosystems and a thriving economy,” EPA administrator Michael S. Regan said.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who was hosting a sustainable energy conference in Anchorage, immediately blasted the EPA restrictions as hurting mining jobs and Alaska’s mining industry. Dunleavy predicted that the Biden administration decision will have a domino effect on mining across the U.S.
“EPA’s action could very well become the template for stopping future mines in Alaska and across the country. Alaska will not be bullied by Washington D.C. bureaucrats,” Dunleavy said.
At issue is an EPA proposal to ban Pebble Mine from dumping mine waste into certain waters in the Bristol Bay watershed that include streams, rivers and wetlands within the footprint of the mining site. The Pebble Mine would be located at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, home to half of the world’s sockeye salmon population. The Bristol Bay region supports a $2 billion commercial fishing industry and sustains tribal economies.
The EPA’s findings showed that mine waste would cause “adverse effects” on salmon runs including the permanent loss of salmon from “displacement, injury and death.”
The open pit mine would be a mile wide and a third of a mile deep. Pebble would extract and process millions of tons of rock each year.
In Wednesday’s announcement, the EPA stated that more than two decades of studies and research on the impacts of mining in the region were examined prior to issuing the proposed restrictions.
“EPA is committed to following the science, the law, and a transparent public process to determine what is needed to ensure that this irreplaceable and invaluable resource is protected for current and future generations,” Regan said.
Record-breaking fishing season
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is projecting that more than 73 million sockeye salmon will return to Bristol Bay this season.
From commercial fishing businesses to Alaska Native tribes, several organizations that depend on Bristol Bay fisheries heralded the proposed restrictions.
“With a predicted record-breaking fishing season kicking off shortly, it couldn’t be more clear what is at stake if Pebble Mine were built — thousands of jobs, a sustainable economy, and an irreplaceable way of life are all on the line,” said Katherine Carscallen, director of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay.
The Pebble Mine is proposed for a 150-acre site at the headwaters of Bristol Bay. Pebble would produce gold, copper and other metals. It also would be Alaska’s largest mine.
EPA restrictions would ban mine waste disposal, including dredge and fill materials, for 300 square miles around the Pebble Mine operation.
The restrictions are proposed under the Clean Water Act and will now undergo a public comment period through July 5th before a final decision is made.
Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. of Canada, the mine developer, described the EPA’s proposed ban as political.
Pebble Limited Partnership, a subsidiary of Northern Dynasty, spoke out against the waste disposal ban and called it “a giant step backwards” in the mine’s development.
Critics of the mine urged the Biden administration Wednesday to take further action and finalize the decision, so that that mine is stopped permanently from development.
“The science is unequivocal that any industrial mining in Bristol Bay will cause unacceptable adverse effects to the watershed, salmon runs and Bristol Bay communities,” said Katie Strong, attorney with Trustees for Alaska. “There are still many steps ahead in the process, and we hope the EPA will move quickly.”
The United Tribes of Bristol Bay also issued a statement in support of the EPA ban on mine waste disposal.
The group emphasized the significance of Bristol Bay to Alaska’s tribes.
“As stewards of these lands and waters since time immemorial, our people welcome this step towards permanent protections for our waters and way of life,” said Alannah Hurley, executive director for the United Tribes of Bristol Bay.
“We appreciate EPA’s efforts to address the threat Pebble poses to our lands, waters, and way of life in Bristol Bay, and hope to see the agency finalize strong protections this year,” Hurley said.