Scott Hed – Sportsman’s Alliance for Alaska
There have been a few major developments in the long-running campaign to protect the world’s most productive wild salmon fishery as 2014 draws to a close.
First, a quick refresher to get caught up. Over a multi-year period, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment (BBWA) – a study of the values currently found in the Bristol Bay region as well as the potential risks to those values from proposed large-scale mining development such as the Pebble Mine project. The BBWA involved 2 rounds of public comment and 2 rounds of peer review by an independent panel of expert scientists. It concluded that large-scale mining would have significant negative impacts on the waters and lands that support the largest wild salmon runs on earth – something that the fishing community has known all along. EPA used the BBWA as the basis for beginning a process under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act that could limit the type of mining development allowed in the Nushagak and Kvichak river drainages in Bristol Bay. EPA proposed common-sense restrictions on miles of stream impacted, acres of wetlands, lakes, and ponds impacted, and reduction in stream flow. During this period, the major financial backers of the Pebble project withdrew their support, leaving only Northern Dynasty Minerals as a member of the Pebble Limited Partnership (PLP). Weakened financially, and facing strong opposition both in Alaska and across the country, PLP decided to fight to keep its project alive in two arenas – Congress and the courts. Legislation was proposed in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives that would strip EPA of the very authority it is considering using to protect Bristol Bay. Also, PLP filed 3 lawsuits against the EPA seeking to have the agency’s work halted.
The legislation didn’t go anywhere in the last Congress, but it is highly likely that similar legislation will be offered in the new Congress which begins in January. The angling community will need to be ready to contact Senators and Representatives to urge them to oppose any bills that would weaken EPA’s ability to use the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay.
Of the 3 lawsuits filed by PLP, there was action just prior to Thanksgiving on one suit – and a federal judge issued a temporary injunction that stops EPA from doing any work on the Bristol Bay Clean Water Act process until it is resolved. In Pebble’s own words, this was a “procedural victory,” and it doesn’t affect EPA’s scientific justification for using the Clean Water Act in Bristol Bay. Best case scenario = judge grants a motion to dismiss the suit and EPA’s work resumes in March 2015. If the motion to dismiss is not granted, then the case moves to discovery and EPA’s work may be pushed into 2016.
The bottom line remains that Pebble Mine is still the wrong mine in the wrong place. It was hoped that EPA would take the next step in the Clean Water Act process in February 2015 and that we could possibly have seen Bristol Bay protected by this coming summer. The lawsuit situation has pushed that timeline back.
In a somewhat related vein, in mid-December, President Obama issued a moratorium on offshore oil and gas exploration and development in Bristol Bay. In his announcement, the President touched on many of the same points that those who have worked to protect Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine have used for years. The President acknowledged the uniqueness of Bristol Bay, and the tremendous economic benefits it creates for Alaskans and many in the lower 48. While this announcement is welcome news for Bristol Bay, it does not affect the fight to stop the Pebble Mine. The EPA must still issue final and permanent protections to prevent North America’s largest open pit mine from being built at the headwaters of one of the world’s premier sportfishing destinations. With a final Clean Water Act 404(c) determination in Bristol Bay, the EPA has the power to make President Obama’s pledge to protect Bristol Bay both complete and lasting.
We will continue to need the angling community’s engagement in 2015, especially in beating back any harmful bills that would take away EPA’s tools under the Clean Water Act that can see us reach the ultimate goal of protecting Bristol Bay from massive mines like Pebble. Thanks in advance for your support, and stand by for how you can help in 2015.