A lawsuit filed in US District Court in Anchorage on Tuesday, Oct. 8, by opponents to the proposed Pebble mine contends that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency improperly withdrew proposed restrictions on mining activity in the Bristol Bay area.
The EPA announced in July that it was withdrawing proposed restrictions under the Clean Water Act that would have restricted or deny discharges or fill material into federal waters when it was determined that such disposal would have unacceptable adverse impact on various resources, including fisheries and wildlife.
The lawsuit alleges that by removing these science-based protections the Trump Administration not only broke the law, but made it clear that local people will have no voice in management of their rivers, streams and wetlands.
Plaintiffs in the case, speaking at the Bristol Bay Defense Alliance, include Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, Bristol Bay Native Association, United Tribes of Bristol Bay, Bristol Bay Reserve Association and Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp.
Proposed protection under the Clean Water Act were first sought by six Bristol Bay tribes in 2010, and quickly gain support from commercial and sport fishing groups. During the multi-year public process and resulting proposed determination from the EPA that followed every stakeholder group from scientific experts and Bristol Bay residents to the Pebble Partnership, contributed testimony.
The lawsuit claims that EPA’s withdrawal decision is not supported by the record and that EPA failed to acknowledge and explain its reversal. In addition, the lawsuit said the EPA improperly relied on factors which Congress has not intended it to consider and failed to consider relevant key factors, including substantive findings it made in support of its proposed determination when it withdrew that proposed determination.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of the 2019 Bristol Bay fishery, with a run of over 56 million fish, the fourth largest on record and also the fifth consecutive year that the inshore run exceeded 50 million fish. The harvest of 44.5 million salmon is the second largest on record after 45.4 million fish delivered to processors in 1995.
The fishery provides some 1,400 jobs and contributes millions of dollars to state coffers.
“We think the suit is without merit as the EPA acted appropriately,” said Mike Heatwole, spokesman for the Pebble Limited Partnership, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Canadian global mining entity Hunter Dickinson. “As such, we believe the lawsuit will be dismissed. The preemptive action was poor policy to begin with — a precedent that caused alarm among most of Alaska’s business and trade organizations regardless of their views about Pebble.”
Ralph Andersen, president and CEO of the Bristol Bay Native Association, said that BBNA joined the coalition to make clear “that we will not allow this administration to ignore us, our way of life, and the future we have chosen for our region.”
Anderson said it is because of the careful stewardship of the indigenous people of Bristol Bay that the bay is home to the last fully intact wild salmon fisheries and cultures in the world.
“The federal government has a trust responsibility to protect the resources that our cultures depend on, and eliminating the proposed protections violates that responsibility,” he said.
“Salmon are more than just food for the people of Bristol Bay,” said Lindsay Layland, deputy director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay. “Catching, preserving and eating salmon are part of a genuine and treasured way of life. As sovereign Native nations, our member tribes have worked in good faith with the U.S. government to protect our resources.
“Despite our efforts, however, a corrupt political landscape and a few backroom deals have resulted in the illegal withdrawal of peer-reviewed, science-based environmental protections for the world’s most pristine ecosystem and wild salmon habitat,” she said.
Veteran Bristol Bay harvester Robin Samuelson spoke of how his grandfather started the first cannery in Bristol Bay 150 years ago.
“My homeland will fight them tooth and nail and that’s why we are here today at the courthouse,” he said. “We will fight them to the end.”
Andy Wink, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, said there simply is no precedent for open pit mining coexisting with sockeye salmon on the scale proposed by the Pebble mine in Bristol Bay.
“The EPA’s proposed determination to enact section 404 (c) of the Clean Water Act protections is an important tool for safeguarding the world’s most productive salmon habitat and we cannot allow it to be cast aside without due process,” he said.