EPA shuts down Alaska’s Pebble mine with rarely used power

The proposed Pebble mine site, photo in 2014 (Jason Sear/KDLG)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday morning that it is effectively halting the controversial Pebble mine project in Southwest Alaska.

The ruling ends a decades-long battle over a region that is not only home to one of the world’s largest deposits of copper and gold, but also the world’s largest wild salmon run.

The EPA says the mine would cause too much damage to salmon habitat and is banning some mining at the Pebble deposit.

United Tribes of Bristol Bay Executive Director Alana Hurley called the EPA’s decision historic. It’s a move some Bristol Bay tribes have been pushing the EPA to take for 13 years.

“Many of those who started this fight are no longer with us. New generations of our people have been born and raised with the Pebble cloud hanging over them,” she said at an EPA press conference on Monday. “But our primal responsibility to protect the watershed and the fishery has brought us all together in our work to protect the world’s last great wild salmon fishery.”

Opponents of the 2019 Pebble Mine protest in Anchorage (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

The EPA is exercising its rarely used “veto power” under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to prohibit mining at the Pebble deposit. This is the 14th time in the history of the Clean Water Act and only the third time in the past 30 years that the federal agency has done so.

Hurley repeatedly thanked the Biden administration. She pointed to the nation’s discussions with tribes in the region and said the federal government consulted with tribes when the state government did not want to. She also said the tribes will continue their efforts to protect the region.

“Our work will not be done until every inch of our traditional homelands is protected,” she said. “And EPA’s action today helps us build that future where our people can remain Yup’ik, Dena’ina and Alutiiq for generations to come.”

Before Tuesday, the proposed Pebble mine already faced serious headwinds. The Pebble Company proposed to build an open pit copper and gold mine about 27 miles from Lake Iliamna. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied Pebble a federal permit two years ago, and the mining company is appealing that decision.

In a written statement responding to Tuesday’s announcement, Pebble CEO John Shively said the EPA’s use of Clean Water Act powers while the appeals process is ongoing is “illegal and unprecedented” and that it would likely led to legal action.

“For more than a decade, we have argued that fair treatment under US rules and regulations should be followed for Pebble or any other development project,” Shively said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the Biden EPA continues to ignore fair and just process in favor of politics. This preemptive action against Pebble is not legally, technically, or environmentally supportable.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a statement Tuesday along with leaders of several state departments blasting the EPA veto. He said the veto “sets a dangerous precedent.”

“Worryingly, this lays the groundwork to halt any development projects, mining or non-mining, in any area of ​​Alaska with wetlands and fish-bearing streams,” he said. “My administration will stand up for the rights of Alaskans, Alaskan property owners and Alaska’s future.”

Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor called the EPA’s decision “legally indefensible.”

The EPA said Tuesday that the mine’s damage to salmon habitat would be “unacceptable.” He said it would damage or destroy 100 miles of streams that support spawning and breeding and roughly 2,100 acres of surrounding wetlands.

The EPA action also goes beyond banning Pebble’s proposed project. It prohibits future projects that would cause a similar loss of water resources and restricts the discharge of mine materials into the South and North Fork Koktuli Rivers and Upper Talarik Creek.

Still, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the decision is focused on the Pebble site.

“We know that this particular project would have adverse impacts that would significantly impact not only the industry but also the ecosystem and would have a significant impact from a cultural perspective as well,” he said.

The EPA’s assistant administrator for the Office of Water, Radhika Fox, said the agency’s decision means the Army Corps cannot grant Pebble’s appeal as proposed. But she said that doesn’t rule out any future project.

woman in purple blouse
Radhika Fox, EPA Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water, visiting Anchorage in 2022 (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

“It provides a road map for those types of projects that would create those adverse impacts, but it doesn’t apply at all to other projects that could potentially be considered,” she said. “And it doesn’t apply to any resource development outside of that in the state of Alaska.”

The EPA said the habitat around the Pebble deposit supports a diversity of Bristol Bay salmon and many other species, which in turn support Alaska Native communities in the region and support sport and commercial fisheries.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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