WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Wednesday took a major legal step to protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay, one of the world’s most valuable sockeye salmon fisheries that also sits atop huge deposits of copper and gold long coveted by mining companies.
Citing its authority under the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a legal determination that would prohibit the disposal of mining waste in the Bristol Bay watershed. It’s a move that could deal a fatal blow to the Pebble mine project, an intensely contested project that would have mined the metals but also damaged the ecosystem beyond repair, the scientists said.
The proposal, which would create permanent protections for the waters and wildlife of Bristol Bay, about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, will be finalized later this year.
The determination would prohibit any entity from disposing of mine-related waste within 308 square miles of the site of the proposed Pebble Mine project. This is an area about four times larger than Washington, DC, but only a small fraction of the entire 40,000 square mile area of the Bristol Bay watershed.
“The Bristol Bay watershed is a shining example of how our country’s waters are essential for healthy communities, vibrant ecosystems and a thriving economy,” said Michael S. Regan, Environmental Administrator Protection Agency. “EPA is committed to following science, the law, and a transparent public process to determine what is necessary to ensure that this irreplaceable and invaluable resource is protected for current and future generations.”
Blocking the Pebble Mine would be a promise kept for President Biden, who pledged during the election campaign to “listen to scientists and protect Bristol Bay”.
Highlighting the area as fundamental to the Alaska Native way of life, a popular destination for anglers and the source of half of the world’s sockeye salmon, Biden said: “It’s not a place for a mine.
The fight for the fate of Pebble Mine and Bristol Bay has been raging for more than a decade. The Bristol Bay plan was scuttled years ago under the Obama administration, then found new life under President Trump. But opposition from Alaska Native communities, environmentalists and the fishing industry never waned, and even Mr. Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., a sportsman who had fished in the area, spoke out against the project. The waters are thick with chum, coho, sockeye and pink salmon.
In 2020, the Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for the project which was considered essential for it to proceed.
The company seeking to build the mine, the Pebble Limited Partnership, has appealed the decision and is also expected to challenge the legality of the Biden administration’s new plan to protect Bristol Bay.
“This is a giant step backwards for the Biden administration’s climate change goals,” John Shively, chief executive of the Pebble Limited Partnership, said in a statement.
He called it “ironic” that President Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to speed up the mining and processing of minerals used in batteries for renewable energy and electric vehicles while shutting down Pebble Mine. These so-called critical minerals generally include nickel, lithium, cobalt, graphite and manganese. Copper, despite being a key component of wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles, was not listed as a critical mineral in executive orders issued during the Biden or Trump administrations.
Shivley said his company is still appealing the Army Corps’ permit denial and called the EPA’s new decision a “political conclusion to try to block our ability to follow this established process.”
The company wants to dig an open-pit mine more than a square mile and a third of a mile deep where it would process tens of millions of tons of rock a year to extract metals estimated at at least $300 billion. . The project would include the construction of a 270-megawatt power plant and a 165-mile gas pipeline, as well as an 82-mile road and large tailings impoundments, some of which are toxic. It would also require the dredging of a harbor in Iliamna Bay.
Federal and state agencies have found that the proposed cobble mine, which would be located in two watersheds that feed fish rivers, would cause permanent damage, harming salmon spawning grounds that are the basis of a fishing industry. sport fishing and a large trade. fishery in Bristol Bay. Salmon is also an important part of the diet of Alaska Natives who live in small villages in the region. Scientists say the mine would destroy more than 130 miles of waterways, 2,800 acres of wetlands and 130 acres of open water.
Last fall, when the Environmental Protection Agency indicated it intended to block the project, a spokesperson for the Pebble Mine Partnership said it could have the unintended consequence of hampering Biden administration goals of tackling climate change, by restricting domestic extraction of a crucial element. mineral used in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles and other low-carbon technologies.
Chris Wood, head of Trout Unlimited, a conservation group that led the legal fight against Pebble Mine, recognized the need for critical minerals in the United States. But “there are other places to exploit than the most intact and functioning salmon ecosystem on the planet,” he said.
Senator Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who has long opposed the mine, also welcomed the new EPA decision.
“Our region’s fishing and outdoor economies depend on healthy runs of wild salmon,” Ms Cantwell said in a statement. If built, the Pebble mine would “poison the fragile Bristol Bay watershed, destroying millions of salmon and the thousands of jobs that depend on it”.
The Biden administration argues that there is significant economic value in retaining Bristol Bay. The EPA found that Bristol Bay’s commercial salmon fishery generated $2 billion in economic activity in 2019, and economic activity generated by the fishery created 15,000 jobs.
Agency officials said they would accept public comments on the proposal until July 5 before releasing a final legal decision.