January 30, 2023
By Joshua Bergan
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued its final determination that the embattled proposed Pebble Mine is enough of a threat to Alaska's Bristol Bay and the world's largest salmon run to warrant what’s known as “404(c)” protections, which effectively ends the eliminates the possibility of the mine happening.
“The Bristol Bay watershed is a vital economic driver, providing jobs, sustenance, and significant ecological and cultural value to the region,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan. “With this action, EPA is advancing its commitment to help protect this one-of-a-kind ecosystem, safeguard an essential Alaskan industry, and preserve the way of life for more than two dozen Alaska Native villages.”
Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act basically gives EPA administrators veto power on projects where it is determined that “discharge of (dredged or fill material into the navigable waters at specified disposal sites) will have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas.” The prior 13 implementations of Section 404(c) have proven durable and are all still in place.
“We are elated and relieved that today the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a 404(c) Clean Water Act veto to end the threat of Pebble Mine– heeding the calls of Tribes, commercial fishermen, and people in the region who have spoken out and urged the EPA to protect Bristol Bay for decades,” said a statement from the Stop Pebble Mine coalition. “This is a hard-won victory for Bristol Bay Tribes and residents, thousands of people—including commercial and sport fishers, businesses, chefs, and others—whose lives and livelihoods depend on the thriving fishery, and millions more who are fed by Bristol Bay salmon from coast to coast and around the globe.”
“What a day for wild salmon! This is a victory for a whole ecosystem and one of the most important salmon strongholds left on the planet,” Wild Salmon Center President & CEO Guido Rahr said. “It’s a victory for clean water, for the tens of millions of salmon that return to Bristol Bay’s watersheds every year, for the thousands of people in communities built around these fish, and for the 137 species that depend on that returning salmon, including orcas, grizzly bears, caddisflies and everything in between.”
The Pebble deposit is a massive underground cache of gold, copper, and molybdenum that sits beneath the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers, where the world’s largest sockeye run occurs. A see-saw battle between Northern Dynasty Minerals (NDM) and a diverse group of tribal, sportsmen’s, commercial fishing, and conservation organizations has gone on for around 20 years, since the mineral rights were first acquired and Pebble Mine murmurs began.
Pebble’s proposed mine footprint has been deemed a prohibited area for mining activities, while a much larger area around the footprint area has been ruled as restricted.
The determination is the culmination of many years of back-and-forth decisions both for and against Pebble Mine.
Legal challenges are likely as Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy is a proponent of Pebble Mine and the mining companies still have options to appeal the decision. But the Stop Pebble Mine coalition is already preparing robust defenses against any appeals or reversals, and as mentioned above, the 404(c) determination has never been overturned.
"We feel confident that the decision will hold up in court, should Pebble choose to challenge it," Rahr said.
The door remains cracked for a smaller mine to be proposed, though the restrictions imposed by the determination make this unlikely.
“We’re not going to unfurl the ‘mission accomplished’ banner just yet,” Dan Kanninen, CEO of Arc Initiatives (a political strategy consulting firm), said.
In related news, the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, Pedro Bay Corporation, the Conservation Fund and others recently imposed a conservation easement along Lake Iliamna, protecting more than 44,000 acres of Pedro Bay Corp lands. The move more or less blocks Pebble Mine’s proposed transportation route and adds protections for prime salmon spawning habitat.
But for today, anglers, conservationists, Tribal members, commercial fishermen, and all parties who worked to defend the world’s largest salmon run can celebrate this historic and monumental decision against the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay.
Joshua Bergan is Fly Fisherman’s digital editor.