Thought the Pebble Mine Fight was Over? Think Again

EPA has rescinded its prior determination that large-scale mining in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region would be harmful to salmon fishery.

Bristol Bay | Photo: Bob Waldrop

Bristol Bay. Pebble Mine.

I can’t believe we’re here again.

I suppose I should back up. We haven’t talked about Alaska’s Bristol Bay in a while because… well… things were actually going okay. If you have a memory like a steel trap, you might remember that American Rivers included Bristol Bay rivers (i.e., the Kvichack and Nushagak rivers and their tributaries) among America’s Most Endangered Rivers® in 2011. The rivers, and the world’s largest sockeye salmon run, were threatened by the Pebble Mine – a mine of staggering scale that would cause irreversible damage to clean water, salmon, and an entire way of life.

A bear waits to catch migrating salmon a tributary of Bristol Bay. | Photo: Bob Waldrop
A bear waits to catch migrating salmon a tributary of Bristol Bay. | Photo: Bob Waldrop

Then in 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that the Pebble Mine would cause irreversible and unacceptable damage to Bristol Bay and its associated ecosystem that supports treasured salmon. More than one million people submitted comments asking for strong protections for Bristol Bay. We’re not talking about a couple of people who don’t want a mine in their backyard. Hundreds of thousands of people across the country said NO. This place is too special to contaminate and bury.

EPA agreed. They said no.

Fast forward to 2017. New Administration. New EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt. Last week the EPA reached a settlement agreement with the Pebble Limited Partnership, a subsidiary of Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., which reverses EPA’s earlier decision that the project would be too detrimental to the salmon fishery.

How could a “too harmful” determination that was based on science suddenly become okay? Never mind about sustainable fish populations. Never mind about the economic livelihood of local residents. Never mind about indigenous rights. Never mind.

Bristol Bay and its associated ecosystem are home to some of the most treasured salmon fisheries. | Bob Waldrop
Bristol Bay and its associated ecosystem are home to some of the most treasured salmon fisheries. | Bob Waldrop

So… what happens next? Despite some calls for dismantling environmental regulations in Washington, DC, we fortunately do still have regulatory hurdles in place that will take time to surmount. Projects like this do not get permitted overnight. Shepherding this massive project through the permitting process will also be expensive (Pebble estimates this will cost $150 million). Alaskans are planning to stand up for themselves as well. They passed a ballot measure last year that requires any large-scale mine in the Bristol Bay region be approved first by the state legislature. The state of Alaska owns the lands where the mine would be developed.

This is by no means a done deal. What this means is that Pebble Mine is back on the radar. It could end up back on the endangered rivers list. Only time will tell.

9 responses to “Thought the Pebble Mine Fight was Over? Think Again

  1. Do not allow this mine to be approved and to operate in the Bristol Bay area. This area is much too important to the people of the area as well as to the wildlife and environment in the area. It is a very small step from exploratory drilling to full scale mining. This project MUST BE STOPPED before it destroys the fishing community in the area.

  2. Please protect Bristol Bay from mining and anything else that may disrupt the natural environment there and the surrounding area.

  3. No, do not allow this mine to operate, it would be disastrous to the state, the animals, the fishery and the people, I’m against allowing this completely!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. I do not understand, if the state owns the land, isn’t it up tI the state to say yes or nay regarding development on state land? I have two sons and many frwinds that fish Bristol, I wish you well in stopping the development of this mine.

    1. Hi Fee, it’s a little complicated. In order for a mine to be permitted in this location, it will require both state and federal permits. Currently, the state of Alaska has issued the Pebble Limited Partnership a permit to do exploratory drilling in the Bristol Bay watershed. However, in order for a full-scale mine to be permitted, Pebble Limited would need a number of permits from state and federal agencies, as well as the approval of the state legislature (this is not always the case, but a ballot initiative in Alaska passed in 2014 requires legislative approval for mining projects in the Bristol Bay watershed). So a number of hurdles would need to be cleared in order for this project to be fully developed.

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