What’s the big news?
The Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt released a statement Saturday announcing that he was NOT withdrawing restrictions on mining in Bristol Bay, Alaska:
Alaska Governor Bill Walker welcomed this news in a strong statement of support for Bristol Bay’s fisheries:
Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Bristol Bay Alaska Native Tribes, commercial fishermen, and recreational fishing businesses applauded this action:
How did we get here?
Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act allows the EPA to deny or restrict how much wetlands or streams may be destroyed during a project like the proposed Pebble mine if the EPA determines the project would have unacceptable adverse effects on fish, wildlife or recreation, among other things.
In 2014, after years of scientific assessment and millions of comments by the public, the EPA released the Proposed Determination, which, if finalized, would severely restrict the amount of mine waste that could be disposed of in the Bristol Bay area. Because of the size and location of the proposed Pebble mine, these restrictions would have made it incredibly hard for Pebble to move forward.
Last summer, after a lawsuit brought by Pebble and a hasty settlement by the new EPA, the EPA was required to initiate the process for withdrawing the Proposed Determination. During the subsequent public comment period, more than 1 million comments of support for protecting Bristol Bay were submitted to the EPA with an astonishing 26,000 from Alaskans and Alaskan business owners.
After the public comment period the EPA could have:
- a) withdrawn the Proposed Determination, which would have cleared the road for Pebble to obtain its permits;
- b) done nothing and left everything in limbo; or
- c) recognized the broad public support for protecting Bristol Bay by refusing to withdraw the Proposed Determination so it could be kept on the table for use
They chose option C!
What does yesterday’s decision mean?
While we still have a long way to go to stop the proposed Pebble mine and protect Bristol Bay, we have a bit more wind in our sails. EPA Administrator Pruitt and Governor Walker both made very strong statements:
Administrator Pruitt: “…it is my judgment at this time that any mining projects in the region likely pose a risk to the abundant natural resources that exist there. Until we know the full extent of that risk, those natural resources and world-class fisheries deserve the utmost protection.” “[Pebble’s] permit application must clear a high bar, because EPA believes the risk to Bristol Bay may be unacceptable.”
Governor Walker: “….I have shared with [Administrator Pruitt] my belief that in the Bristol Bay region we should prioritize the resource that has sustained generations and must continue to do so in perpetuity. I thank the Environmental Protection Agency and the Trump Administration for listening to my input, as well as the input of thousands of Alaskans who oppose rescinding the EPA’s Bristol Bay assessment.”
Why is this important?
The Army Corps of Engineers cannot issue a final 404 permit for the Pebble Mine while a Section 404(c) review is ongoing.
- The Pebble Partnership has been touting for the past year that it has a green light on all fronts to proceed. Yet, even in a very pro-development political environment, our decision-makers are expressing serious reservation that mining in Bristol Bay can happen safely.
- So many of us have known for years that Bristol Bay is unique and Pebble poses significant risk, but to have that publicly recognized by national leaders with a track record for encouraging development across the board is significant. It separates Pebble from other resource-development projects confirms that indeed, special places call for special actions.
The Pebble Mine will continue to remain a very real threat. A few weeks ago, Pebble Limited Partnership applied for the first of the many dozen permits they need, and this kicked off a multi-year NEPA review and EIS process. We will have to demonstrate at every level the scientific, economic, and cultural reasons Pebble should not be granted a permit. Additionally, Alaskans are pursuing options at the state level that if enacted would establish high hurdles protective of salmon and clean water that Pebble would have to overcome.