By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Biden’s’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) yesterday took steps to block the proposed open-pit Pebble Mine, an on-again, off-again project, on Alaska’s Bristol Bay, southwest of Anchorage and close to the world’s largest sockeye salmon run. The proposed mine would extract gold, copper, and molybdenum.
The fight to preserve Bristol Bay isn’t a simple one pitting business interests on one side against environmentalists on the other. According to Stop Pebble Mine, an initiative sponsored by the Bristol Bay Defense Fund — a coalition of business, tribal, nonprofit, and community organizations dedicated to protecting Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine:
Bristol Bay is the lifeblood of Alaska. Home to the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon run, the bay provides tens of thousands of Alaskan jobs and feeds Americans from coast to coast. Its pristine waters have sustained the Indigenous peoples of the region for millennia, and each year tens of thousands of anglers and visitors from around the world are drawn to its extraordinary beauty and abundance.
Tussling over the Pebble Mine project has been ongoing for more than a decade. According to the Washington Post, in EPA to protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay, blocking major gold mine:
The Obama administration initially proposed blocking the project in 2014 due to what it called the “unacceptable environmental effects” that an open-pit mine posed to the region’s ecologically and economically valuable habitats. It did not, however, finalize that determination.
The Bristol Bay watershed, unlike the waters of many other salmon fisheries, requires no hatcheries to raise and release fish into its rivers. The Obama administration projected that mining activity could destroy 1,200 acres of wetlands, lakes and ponds.
On this project, as with so many other environmental issues, Trump’s EPA administration did not see eye-to-eye with his predecessor. Over to the WaPo:
President Donald Trump’s first EPA administrator,Scott Pruitt, reversed that finding and allowed the mine operators to apply for a permit. But the Trump administration eventually shelved the mining plan after the release of embarrassing secret recordings of the mine’s sponsors as well as sustained opposition from Fox News host Tucker Carlson and other leading conservatives who like to fish in the area.
Other opponents included Donald Trump, Jr., who enjoyed the area’s fishing. Per the WaPo:
“It’s hard to describe how undeveloped it is,” said Trout Unlimited President Chris Wood in an interview Wednesday as he stood near Alaska’s Kvichak River. Wood, whose group sued the EPA, described the river feeding into Bristol Bay as teeming with so many fish that it looked like a “sea of red from the room where I’m standing.”
What Has Just Been Done?
The EPA filed a motion in the United States District Court for Alaska to quash Trump EPA administrator Pruitt’s decision to withdrew protections for Bristol Bay. If the federal court agrees, the EPA may then begin hammering out permanent protections for the area, likely to be promulgated under the authority of the Clean Water Act.
According to the New York Times in Biden Administration Moves to Protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay:
In a statement, the Environmental Protection Agency argued that the administration of President Donald J. Trump acted unlawfully in 2019 when it rejected concerns that a proposed massive gold and copper mine would threaten the fisheries, withdrawing federal protections from Bristol Bay.
The move will have little immediate effect because the Trump administration ultimately denied an essential permit for the project, known as Pebble Mine, in 2020. That happened after President Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. and the Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, both of whom enjoyed hunting and fishing in the region, joined environmental activists and Native tribes to oppose the mine in an unlikely coalition.
What Happens Next?
The game is far from over, however. Mining interests have indicated they will appeal. Per the NYT:
But environmental activists noted that the decision to reject the permit by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is being appealed by the Pebble Limited Partnership, the company seeking to build the mine. The company wants to dig a pit, more than a mile square and one-third of a mile deep, to obtain the metals, estimated to be worth at least $300 billion. The project would include the construction of a 270-megawatt power plant and 165-mile natural-gas pipeline, as well as an 82-mile road and large dammed ponds for the tailings — some of them toxic. It would also require dredging a port at Iliamna Bay.ebble Mine.
Ans it is possible that other mining interests might launch a bid to revive the Pebble Mine. To forestall that possibility permanently, the EPA now intends to get to work creating permanent protections for the area, as the latest EPA move might be overturned by a subsequent administration. Per the NYT:
In a statement, the E.P. A. administrator, Michael Regan, said that if the court ruled in the Biden administration’s favor, the agency would announce a schedule for resuming a process to protect the Bristol Bay from development under the Clean Water Act.
“What’s at stake is preventing pollution that would disproportionately impact Alaska Natives,” Mr. Regan said, “and protecting a sustainable future for the most productive salmon fishery in North America.”
According to the WaPo:
The EPA has used its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to block a major project only a dozen other times. “It is a rarely used authority, and it’s one that we will use sparingly,” said Fox, the agency’s top water official.
Further steps that area also being considered to protect Bristol Bay, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s suggestion to pass legislation that places Bristol Bay off limits to further development, as mentioned by the WaPo:
Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Joel Reynolds called the EPA’s announcement “a big step” but added federal legislation would provide more-lasting safeguards. “We need congressional action.”
Pedro Bay Group, a Native Alaskan group, has have also sought block the Pebble Mine project. They have set in motion plans to grant conservation easements to an environmental nonprofit. This step would limit the availability of mining interests to get access to the area targeted for the Pebble Mine. Per the WaPo:
In June, shareholders of the Pedro Bay Corp., an Alaska Native group that owns land near Bristol Bay, voted to let the environmental nonprofit Conservation Fund buy conservation easements on more than 44,000 acres and make the land off-limits to future development. That agreementcouldblock a mining road the Pebble Limited Partnership has indicated that it would use to transport ore from its operation.
Othe actions by native Alaskans could also block the project. Per the WaPo:
In addition, a coalition of 15 federally recognized tribes launched a campaign this summer for President Biden to “finish the job” by blocking the mine. Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, described the decision to restart the EPA protection process as a “monumental step in the right direction.”
“Those protections are something that our tribes have been fighting for for literally almost two decades now,” she said.
The tribes represent a majority of the population in the Bristol Bay area. And they understood that the Pebble Mine project represented an existential threat to their way of life and reliance on salmon, she said. But for many years their concerns fell on deaf ears, and they felt like they were “screaming underwater, with nobody hearing us.”
The tribes are not alone in opposing the Pebble Mine. Per the WaPo:
But opposition to the project has grown over the years, [Hurley] added. “When the average person hears about putting a mega-mine in the spawning grounds and headwaters of the world’s last great sockeye salmon fishery, it doesn’t add up economically or ethically.”
Looking at pictures and videos of the Bristol Bay area reminded me of how beautiful Alaska is. I visited once, in 2015, when I accompanied my mother on a trip to celebrate her 80th birthday. As it happens, we were in the midst of our trip exactly six years ago today. Reading these press accounts made me think that although the game is far from over, the Biden administration might succeed in jettisoning the Pebble Mine project for good. – thus allowing the Bristol Bay fishery and its surrounding ecosystem to continue to flourish.