February 2023 Edition | Volume 77, Issue 2
Published since 1946
EPA Issues Final Determination on Pebble Mine in Alaska
On January 30, 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a Final Determination under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to limit the use of certain waters in the Bristol Bay watershed as disposal sites for discharges of dredged or fill material associated with development of the proposed Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska. The determination was based on an extensive review of scientific and technical research spanning two decades, and robust stakeholder engagement, the majority of which opposed the mine. The EPA determined that certain discharges associated with developing the Pebble mine would have “unacceptable adverse effects” on the salmon fishery in the Bristol Bay watershed. This represents only the third time in 30 years that the EPA has used its authority in this manner to halt development. Alaska’s Governor Dunleavy and the mine’s developers have indicated they will challenge the EPA determination in court. If the court upholds the EPA determination, it will mark the end of a multi-decade battle over the project.
Bristol Bay salmon have supported Native Alaskans for millennia and currently represent one of the most economically important commercial fisheries in the state. Annually, the fishery supports over 15,000 jobs and generates over $2 billion. In addition, the record salmon runs of the past two decades have contributed to the vitality of the watershed’s ecosystem. Thousands of bears, wolves, eagles, otters, mink, and other predators feed on the tens of millions of salmon returning to their natal streams and the carcasses of spawned out fish nourish both aquatic invertebrates and riparian vegetation. The flood of nutrients from the ocean back to freshwater and adjacent uplands is especially important at the higher latitudes of Alaska.
Concern over the potential impact of the Pebble Mine on Bristol Bay salmon arose shortly after the project was proposed in the early 2000s. If fully developed, Pebble would be the largest open pit mine in North America. The mine’s supporters pointed out the potential for jobs and revenue for the state and argued their development plan would have minimal impact on the environment.
Most Native Alaska organizations in the region, commercial fishing interests in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, and environmental groups across the nation were skeptical and asked the federal government to halt the project. Under President Obama, the EPA issued its first ruling to prevent development of the mine. That ruling was litigated. Although the Trump administration also expressed opposition to the mine, it signed a settlement agreement that allowed development of a revised mine plan and application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a permit that would be subject to further review. The Biden administration renewed EPA’s consideration of the revised mine plan under the Clean Water Act and on January 30, 2023, issued its Final Determination that will preclude further consideration by the Corps of Engineers or permitting of the mine if it survives an expected legal challenge.
All three members of the Alaska Congressional delegation, including two Republican Senators and one House Democrat opposed development of the Pebble mine. At the same time, all three expressed concerns about the potential impact of the EPA ruling on other development proposals in the state.