EPA proposes new Clean Water Act restrictions for Bristol Bay

Mine backers say this is a giant step backwards for the Biden administration’s climate change goals.

Federal environmental protection officials are planning a public review and comment period on a revised proposed determination under the Clean Water Act to prohibit and restrict use of certain areas of the Bristol Bay watershed for disposal of materials from the Pebble mine.

The announcement from Region 10 of the Environmental Protection Agency included comments from top EPA officials noting the importance of environmental protections and the economic power of the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery.

EPA Region 10 plans to solicit public comment on the revised Proposed Determination at public hearings in June and by written submissions through July 5.  More information on how to comment is online at epa.gov/bristolbay

The EPA announcement won kudos from opponents of the Canadian-owned mine project, and strong criticism from John Shively, chief executive officer for the Pebble Partnership, a subsidiary of the diversified global mining group Hunter Dickinson, in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“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,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “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.” 

To that, Casey Sixkiller, regional administer of EPA Region 10, added that two decades of scientific study “show us that mining the Pebble Deposit would cause permanent damage to an ecosystem that supports a renewable economic powerhouse and has sustained fishing cultures since time immemorial. Clearly, Bristol Bay and the thousands of people who rely on it deserve the highest level of protection.”  

Katherine Carscallen, director of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, said she hopes EPA will move quickly to finalize Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to enact durable, long-lasting protections for the region.

“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,” Carscallen said.

“For years Bristol Bay’s fishermen have been asking the EPA to finalize Clean Water Act protections for our fishery and stop the Pebble Mine. Before we head out on our boats, we’ll weigh in once again and urge the EPA to protect Bristol Bay’s $2.2 billion sustainable economy and the 15,000 jobs imperiled by the Pebble Mine.” 

“Our industry has been operating with the Pebble mine hanging over us or far too long,” said Andy Wink, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association. “This threat has created tremendous uncertainty and risk for our fishermen and seafood processors who have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into fishing boats, fishing permits, and processing plants. We look forward to the EPA completing its 404 (c) process as quickly as possible so that our industry can focus on harvesting and supplying the world with Bristol Bay Sockeye.”

“A massive open pit mine and waste site has no place at the headwaters of the most productive sockeye salmon habitat on the planet, and we are heartened that, once again, the EPA has recognized that,” said Tim Bristol, executive director of SalmonState. “Bristol Bay is still wild, pristine and breaking records when it comes to numbers of salmon returning.” 

Shively meanwhile called the EPA’s action “a giant step backwards for the Biden administration’s climate change goals.”

Shively said he finds it ironic that Biden is employing the Defense Production Act to get more renewable energy minerals such as copper into production while others in the administration are looking for political means of stopping domestic mining projects like Pebble. Shively noted that the U.S Army Corps of Engineers published an environmental impact statement or Pebble in 2020 that stated the project can be done without harm to area fisheries and that the EIS also noted the tremendous economic opportunity the project represents for Bristol Bay area communities where year-round jobs are scarce and the cost of living very high.

“The Pebble Project remains an important domestic source for the minerals necessary for the Biden Administration to reach its green energy goals and if it blocks Pebble it will have to seek minerals to meet its goals from foreign sources which simply do not have the same environmental standards as we do,” Shively said.