In late May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it wants to veto development of the Pebble Mine — a vast deposit of copper and gold at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.
The proposal is a step toward permanently blocking development of the proposed open-pit mine in the Bristol Bay watershed. Mine opponents have pursued a veto for more than a decade.
The EPA said mining the Pebble deposit would result in unacceptable loss of salmon habitat, both at the site and further downstream. Using its authority under the Clean Water Act, the agency proposes to prohibit the discharge of mining materials in waters and wetlands at the Pebble site. That could make it impossible to extract minerals from the deposit.
The executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, Alannah Hurley, opposes the mine and said the EPA’s move is a step in the right direction.
“Today is a really big day for Bristol Bay — for us to get back on track in this process, and for the Biden administration to be committed to finishing the job to stop Pebble Mine once and for all is very exciting,” she said. “But we’re not there yet. We definitely need to get through the rest of this process.”
She said her organization will closely read EPA’s proposal, which it has released for public review.
The mine would result in the loss of almost 100 miles of stream habitat, 8.5 miles of salmon habitat, and 2,113 acres of wetlands and waters at the mine site, the EPA notes, drawing from the mine plan.
If finalized, the EPA’s decision would ban digging and dumping material in the area delineated in Pebble’s 2020 mine proposal. That could kill the project. The EPA also wants to restrict the use of waters as disposal sites for any future mine proposals that are as big or bigger.
The EPA has used its “veto” power under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act just 13 times in the law’s 50-year history. It allows the agency to nix projects that would significantly damage habitat or recreational areas.
Hurley said she hopes the EPA’s proposal will ban the mine forever, but she’s been here before. The Obama administration proposed vetoing the mine, too. That was in 2014 — three years before Pebble submitted its proposal.
“As many remember, those got held up in court,” Hurley said. “And when the federal administration changed [with the election of Donald Trump], they eventually were withdrawn.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied Pebble a federal permit in 2020. The company that wants to build the mine, Pebble Limited Partnership, has appealed that decision.
Pebble, for its part, called the EPA’s proposal a step backward not just for the mine, but for President Biden’s climate goals. Minerals like copper are used to make batteries and in other renewable energy technologies. Pebble said the administration shouldn’t hinder domestic production.
Pebble Spokesperson Mike Heatwole said the company will give the EPA proposal a close look to see which areas it’s placing restrictions on.
“Reading between the lines on the EPA action here — that’s upwards of 400 square miles of state of Alaska land that the federal government is proposing taking off the table,” Heatwole said. “There’s just a lot of details within what the EPA is proposing that really needs to be scrutinized to know how it’s all going to work.”
Heatwole said the company will examine how the EPA incorporates the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental findings.
“Which are very clear in terms of both the fishery not being impacted and on the water resources as well,” he said.
The company has consistently maintained that the mine would bring jobs and wealth to the region without significant harm to Bristol Bay’s fishery.
The scope of the EPA’s proposal only extends to the discharge of materials associated with the Pebble deposit. While Pebble is the largest mining claim in the region, it’s not the only one.
Hurley, with the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, said Tribes and mining opponents in the region and around the country want broader protections of the area.
“How do we make sure that our future generations aren’t fighting these types of proposals 20 years from now?” she said. “That includes finalizing this EPA process to protect what we hope will be the entirety of the headwaters of our region up near the Pebble mining site.”
Public hearings on the EPA’s proposal will take place in June. The EPA will also accept written comments until July 5.