Feds propose withdrawing restrictions for Pebble

Public will have 90 days to comment; BBNC urges extending that time to 120 days

In the midst of what’s been described as a phenomenal year for the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery, the federal government is proposing to withdraw Clean Water Act restrictions for the proposed Pebble mine.

News of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plans reached Alaska on July 11, as the Bristol Bay fleet, according to preliminary data compiled by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, had already reached a harvest of 25.3 million fish.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 10 in Seattle made the announcement, saying the EPA would be accepting public comment received on or before 90 days from when the proposal is published in the Federal Register.

EPA officials said they are consulting on the proposed withdrawal with federally recognized tribal governments in the Bristol Bay region and with Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act regional and village corporations with lands in the Bristol Bay watershed.  While most of the tribal entities in the region are opposed to the proposed copper, gold and molybdenum mine, some favor development of the mineral prospect because of its economic potential for their village corporations and individual jobs.

Commercial fishing, environmental and numerous sport fishing and hunting entities, as well as other business entities are opposed to the mine because of its potential to contaminate the Bristol Bay watershed, home of the world’s largest sockeye salmon run.  An extensive report produced by the EPA after lengthy public hearings (https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-05/documents/bristol_bay_assessment_final_2014_es.pdf) identified numerous concerned about the potential for the mine to adversely affect fisheries in the Bristol Bay watershed.  Then on May 11, 2017, EPA entered into a settlement agreement with the PLP to resolve litigation from 2014 related to EPA’s prior work in the watershed.  The settlement allows the PLP an opportunity to apply for a Clean Water Act permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before EPA may move forward with its Clean Water Act process to specify limits on disposal of certain material in connection with the potential mine.

Mine proponents contend that they can build and operate the mine in harmony with the fisheries, which are critical to commercial, sport and subsistence users, as well as wildlife all over the Bristol Bay region.

The Pebble Limited Partnership in Anchorage said the PLP was looking forward to accessing the regular permitting process for the project later this year.  According to Tom Collier, chief executive officer, the PLP has taken steps to show that the project has been responsive to stakeholder input, including a significantly smaller mine plan “that we look forward to sharing as the year progresses.”

Opposition to EPA’s announcement was swift from commercial fishermen, tribal entities and the Bristol Bay Native Corp.

“It is unfortunate that the commercial fishing industry must defend itself yet again from the interests of a foreign mining company,” said Kristina Andrew, in a statement released by Sustaining Bristol Bay Fisheries, a community-based commercial fishermen’s organization committed to a sustainable future for Bristol Bay fisheries. “Since Alaskan residents and tribal organizations petitioned the EPA for the 404C protection, Bristol Bay’s commercial fishing fleet has stood with them, requesting that the EPA protect the lands and water that wild salmon need to thrive, she said. “We have had a phenomenal season this year, one for the record books, and now we have to come forward yet again to say we don’t want this mine.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, noted recently that she had urged the EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt for a 90-day comment period to allow for local stakeholders to be heard.
Bristol Bay Native Corp. wants that comment period extended to 120 days, said Jason Metrokin, chief executive officer of BBNC, “so the people of Bristol Bay can adequately express their opinions.”

In the midst of what is proving to be a tremendously successful commercial fishing season, the EPA’s proposal to withdraw potential protections for the billion dollar resource “is not sound economic or environmental policy,” said Metrokin.

“A stab in the back for the overwhelming majority of the people of Bristol Bay” was how Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, described the EPA’s proposal. “The fishery has sustained an ancient indigenous way of life, thousands of jobs, and a sustainable economy for more than 130 years.

“The new administration is making it clear that they care more about international mining companies than the Alaskans and Americans who are dependent on Bristol Bay’s global fishery,” Hurley said. “By withdrawing the proposed protections for Bristol Bay, the EPA is turning its back on scientific fact, the region’s indigenous people, and the millions of people who supported EPA’s action in Bristol Bay. This is a clear violation of the federal government’s trust responsibility to our tribal governments and shows shameless support or a profit-at-all-costs foreign mining company,” she said.

Public comments on EPA’s proposals may be emailed to ow-docket@epa.gov with the docket number EPA-R10-OW-2017-0369 in the email subject line.

More information is online at https://www.epa.gov/bristolbay