Epic Victory for Bristol Bay: EPA Kills Pebble Mine

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just blocked a massive gold and copper mine in Alaska.


Ryan Peterson

Using its authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, EPA issued a Final Determination prohibiting the Pebble Mine and restricting future mining of the Pebble deposit in certain headwaters of Bristol Bay.

This is a watershed moment and hard-fought victory for the Yup’ik, Dena’ina, and Alutiiq Tribes of Bristol Bay and their allies, including NRDC, united in opposition to the Pebble Mine—and its 10 billion tons of mining waste that would need to be stored, forever, at the headwaters of the greatest wild salmon fishery on the planet.


Bristol Bay Defense Fund

It’s the culmination of more than a decade of advocacy—spanning three Presidential administrations and seven federal comment periods which NRDC members and activists, Bristol Bay residents, Tribes, commercial fishermen, sportsmen, conservation organizations, faith-based groups, chefs, investors, businesses, and more urged federal agencies (in nearly 4 million letters) to protect Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine.

The Biden administration and EPA listened to the Tribes and millions of advocates who have fought fiercely to protect Bristol Bay and the people whose lives, culture, and livelihoods depend on its pristine waters and world class runs of wild salmon.

Bristol Bay supports the subsistence lifestyle of some of the world’s last intact salmon-based cultures; a commercial fishing industry worth $2.2 billion annually; 15,000 jobs; an international sports destination for anglers across the globe; and record-breaking numbers of salmon—more than 78 million last summer alone.

EPA stressed the importance of protecting this national treasure, describing Bristol Bay as “an area of unparalleled ecological value” and a “globally significant ecological and cultural resource.”  

EPA is safeguarding Bristol Bay by:

  1. Prohibiting the Pebble Mine. The Final Determination prohibits the use of certain areas as disposal sites for dredged and fill material associated with building and operating the Pebble Mine “for the construction and routine operation of the 2020 Mine Plan.” That plan is defined to include both the mine plan denied by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2020, as well as any future proposals to mine the Pebble deposit that would result in the “same or greater levels of loss or streamflow changes as the 2020 Mine Plan.”
  2. Restricting future mining of the Pebble deposit. The Final Determination restricts the size of future mining proposals within Bristol Bay’s North Fork Koktuli River, South Fork Koktuli River, and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds that would result in adverse effects "similar or greater in nature and magnitude to the adverse effects of the 2020 Mine Plan." Those thresholds unacceptable to water quality and fish habitat include:
  • The loss of approximately 8.5 miles of documented anadromous fish streams;
  • The loss of approximately 91 miles of additional streams that support anadromous fish streams;
  • The loss of approximately 2,108 acres of wetlands and other waters that support anadromous fish streams; or
  • Adverse impacts on approximately 29 additional miles of anadromous fish streams resulting from greater than 20 percent changes in average monthly streamflow.

As described by EPA:

By prohibiting and restricting the discharge of dredged or fill materials associated with developing the Pebble deposit in certain areas of the Bristol Bay watershed, EPA prevents unacceptable adverse effects on important wild salmon habitat, and in doing so also helps safeguard the critical Bristol Bay ecosystem. The region’s salmon resources have supported Alaska Native cultures for thousands of years and continue to support one of the last intact salmon-based cultures in the world. Together, the Bristol Bay watershed’s largely undisturbed aquatic habitats and productive salmon populations create this globally significant ecological and cultural resource. The streams, wetlands, and other aquatic resources of the Bristol Bay watershed also provide the foundation for world-class, economically important, commercial and sport fisheries for salmon and other fishes.

This is only the 14th time since Congress enacted the Clean Water Act in 1970 that EPA has issued a 404(c) Final Determination. None of those earlier determinations have been successfully overturned.

Today’s decision is a landmark conservation victory decades in the making.

When NRDC entered this fight in 2009, it was a true David versus Goliath battle pitting Alaska Native communities against some of the world’s biggest mining companies. After years of relentless opposition, Mitsubishi (2011), Anglo American (2013), Rio Tinto (2014) and First Quantum Minerals (2018) all abandoned the Pebble Mine. But the mine wouldn’t die.

Bristol Bay Tribes and allies then focused on regulatory protection for the region—a campaign that spanned three Presidential administrations.

Tribes, commercial fishermen, and groups like NRDC first petitioned EPA for Clean Water Act protections in 2010, prompting a three-year, twice peer-reviewed scientific assessment that concluded in 2014 with EPA issuing proposed protections under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. The Canadian owner of the Pebble Mine successfully stalled that proposal in court, running out the clock on the Obama administration and opening the door for the Trump administration to settle the case favorably to the mining company.

The Trump Administration withdrew the 404(c) proposed protections in 2019—but did deny Pebble’s Clean Water Act permit in 2020. Bristol Bay Tribes and allies, including Trout Unlimited, Trustees for Alaska, Earthjustice, and NRDC, successfully challenged the unlawful 404(c) withdrawal in court.

With the change in administrations in 2020 and clear directive from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2021, EPA restarted the 404(c) process again in late 2021.

Today we celebrate the conclusion of that 404(c) regulatory process with a win for Bristol Bay. It’s also a win for President Biden, who promised in 2020 to stop the Pebble Mine and “protect Bristol Bay and all it offers to Alaska, our country, and the world.”

Indeed, the Pebble Mine is so reviled that—in a rare show of bipartisan agreement—agencies of the Biden, Obama, and Trump administrations all took action to stop it (Obama and Biden through 404(c) protections and Trump through a Clean Water Act permit denial). Even Alaska’s Congressional delegation—known for its pro-development positions—is unified against the project. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan called it the “wrong mine in the wrong place,” and Representative Mary Peltola described Pebble as an “existential risk to the greatest sockeye salmon run in the world.”

This is the latest—and greatest—in a string of bad news for this mining project.  It has been a roller coaster ride even in recent weeks:

Last month, the Conservation Fund announced the successful funding of conservation easements that, pursuant to an agreement with the Pedro Bay Corporation, will put over 44,000 acres of pristine salmon habitat within the Bristol Bay watershed permanently off limits to development, including land sought by the Pebble’s developers for access to the mine site.

Last week, a judge in New York denied Pebble’s request to dismiss a shareholder lawsuit against it. Pebble will now have to defend itself against fraud allegations stemming from admissions made by former Pebble CEO Tom Collier and Northern Dynasty CEO Ronald Thiessen in undercover videotapes about their true intention for 180 to 200-year mine despite seeking a permit for only a 20-year mine. Collier is also on the hook for providing false testimony to Congress.

Time to savor this epic victory for Bristol Bay. It is a win for the planet, a win for the economy, and a win for environmental justice.

Bristol Bay forever, Pebble Mine never!

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