Efforts to protect the Bristol Bay watershed from potential mining pollution that would affect the world’s largest run of wild sockeye salmon are back in the spotlight, with the Environmental Protection Agency seeking ensure a long-term solution.
“The Bristol Bay Watershed is an Alaskan treasure that underscores the critical value of clean water in America,” said EPA Administrator Michael D. Regan, who announced on Sept. 9 that the EPA would reinitiate the process of making a Clean Water Act Section 404(c) determination to protect certain waters in Bristol Bay. “What’s at stake is prevention pollution that would disproportionately impact Alaska Natives and protecting a sustainable future for the most productive salmon fishery in North America.”
Bristol Bay supports commercial, subsistence and recreational fisheries that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year and create thousands of jobs, and this fishery has supported a subsistence-based way of life for Alaska Natives for over 4,000 years, the EPA said.
The Clean Water Act generally requires a Section 404 permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to authorize a discharge of dredged or fill material into certain streams, wetlands, lakes and ponds. Section 404 directs EPA to develop the environmental criteria used to make permit decisions. Under the Trump administration, EPA issued a July 2019 notice withdrawing its 2014 Proposed determination issued under Section 404(c) an action terminating the review process for Bristol Bay.
The new EPA announcement comes in the wake of a Ninth Circuit Court decision that disposing of mine wastes into a federally protected waterway would not have an unacceptable adverse impact. If the court grants the Justice Department request that the 2019 withdrawal notice be remanded and vacated, the 404(c) review process would be reinitiated,
The policy shift sought now by the EPA would impact efforts of the Pebble Limited Partnership in Anchorage, a subsidiary of Northern Dynasty Minerals in Vancouver, British Columbia, to construct and operate a large copper, gold and molybdenum mine abutting the watershed.
Northern Dynasty Minerals is a subsidiary of Hunter Dickinson Inc., a diversified, global mining group also based in Vancouver, B.C. The Canadian mining company has spent millions of dollars over more than a decade on exploration and planning to build and operate the mine, and on numerous legal battles. They vigorously maintain that they can build and operate the mine in harmony with the fishery. Mine opponents have vigorously challenged that argument.
When the EPA announced its intentions to use the Clean Water Act to protect the watershed
Northern Dynasty President and CEO Ron Thiessen issued a statement that “it is unfortunate that politics continues to interfere with scientific evidence.”
“Under President Joe Biden, we once again find ourselves dealing with Obama-era policies that were inappropriate then and are inappropriate now. In the end, science and facts prevail over political pressure and misinformation,” said Thiessen, who predicted that efforts to kill the project would fail again.
Robert Heyano, president of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, applauded the EPA’s decision as “a historic step forward in the long fight to protect Bristol Bay, our fishery and our people.
“The people of Bristol Bay are counting on the EPA to listen to the science and finish the job of protecting our lands and waters,” Heyano said,
Katherine Carscallen, executive director of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, called this “a pivotal moment for Bristol Bay fishermen. “Our decades-long, locally-led effort to permanently protect Bristol Bay, our thriving commercial fishery and our communities from the Pebble mine is finally back on track,” she said.
“We encourage the Biden administration to finish the job and finalize Clean Water Act section 404(c) protections for Bristol Bay, ensuring that the world’s largest wild salmon fishery and its 15,000 jobs and traditional salmon-based ways of life are no longer threatened by the proposed Pebble mine,” said Tim Bristol, executive director of SalmonState.
Nelli Williams, Alaska director for Trout Unlimited, hailed the EPA’s action, saying that now is the time “to get these much-needed protections across the finish line.”
“This news provides a welcome step toward certainty for our fisheries and our communities,” said Norm Van Vactor, CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., in Dillingham.
Alaska Gov, Mike Dunleavy meanwhile voiced strong criticism of the EPA’s effort, calling it another attempt to snuff out the state’s natural-resource-based economy that would result in lost jobs, revenue and economic prosperity for the state.
Deantha Skibinski, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, said the EPA decision was more evidence that the Biden administration doesn’t want Alaska to have its own sustainable economy. “While the Legislature is searching for solutions for new revenue, the federal government moves to take a state asset worth hundreds of billions off of Alaska’s table,” she said.
The Resource Development Council and the Alaska Oil and Gas Association also were critical of the EPA decision. “The last thing the industry needs is more review, more taxes or more regulations,” said Kara Moriarty, president and CEO of the oil and gas association.