EPA edges closer to banning Pebble Mine in Alaska. A veto is now just one step away.

Bright red salmon with green heads swim in shallow waters with small mountain in background.
Sockeye salmon use many different parts of the Bristol Bay watershed during their adolescence, research shows. (Jason Ching/University of Washington)

Federal regulators are one step away from action that would protect the Bristol Bay watershed and crush the dreams of those who want to see a mine developed to extract ore from the massive Pebble deposit in Southwest Alaska.

Casey Sixkiller, the Region 10 administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, on Thursday announced he sent a recommendation to EPA headquarters to protect the area by vetoing the proposed mine. 

“If affirmed by EPA’s Office of Water during the fourth and final step, this action would help protect salmon fishery areas that support world-class commercial and recreational fisheries, and that have sustained Alaska Native communities for thousands of years, supporting a subsistence-based way of life for one of the last intact wild salmon-based cultures in the world,” he said in a written statement announcing the action.

The announcement is the latest in a long string of setbacks for the Canadian-owned company that wants to mine gold and copper from the Pebble deposit.

Pebble Partnership Chief Executive John Shively said it’s a massive federal overreach and goes beyond what the Clean Water Act allows.

“Perhaps the most egregious aspect of this entire process is the EPA’s blatant dismissal of, and complete lack of consideration for, the significant economic benefits this project could have for the region and for the state,” Shively said in an emailed statement.

Shively said if the EPA finalizes the veto, it would preclude “any development” on more than 300 square miles.

But for mine opponents, protecting that watershed is a top concern.

“After twenty years of Pebble hanging over our heads, the Biden Administration has the opportunity to follow through on its commitments by finalizing comprehensive, durable protections for our region as soon as possible,” United Tribes of Bristol Bay Executive Director Alannah Hurley said in an emailed statement.

The project has always faced strong opposition because the deposit sits upstream from Bristol Bay, home to lucrative salmon fisheries. Economists have estimated the fisheries are worth more than $2.2 billion, including the value to subsistence users.

It’s the pristine waters and healthy upland fish habitat that makes a banner harvest like this summer’s possible, said Katherine Carscallen, director of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay. 

“Our fishermen were able to deliver 59 million wild sockeye to the market– something that isn’t happening anywhere else in the world,” she said.

The Pebble deposit is on state-owned land, but to develop the mine, the Pebble Partnership would need federal permits under the Clean Water Act. 

Under the Obama administration, the EPA regional office also set out to ban the mine. That proposed action was called a “pre-emptive veto,” because it was proposed before Pebble filed for permits.

The “pre-emptive veto” proposal was withdrawn in the Trump administration and the company finally submitted a permit application in late 2017. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the permits in 2020. Pebble is appealing. 

Meanwhile, a coalition of fishermen, tribes, lodge owners and environmental groups has been clamoring for EPA to start a new veto process, to ensure Pebble or another company can’t reapply with a new project design.

The process EPA has to follow to issue a veto is long, with steps that seem to repeat themselves. A regional administrator has to propose a ban, seek public comment, then recommend a ban, and then submit it to headquarters for final approval. 

EPA Region 10, the region that includes Alaska, proposed the ban in May, having concluded that operating the mine – specifically, the dumping or dredge or fill material in waterways – could result in “unacceptable adverse effects” on fish spawning and breeding areas. Region 10 Administrator Casey Sixkiller proposed to ban any future use of the streams in that area for that kind of dumping.

More than 600,000 people commented on the proposal. Most opposed the mine, though some tribes near the site favor the project, as does the state of Alaska. 

Sixkiller’s move now puts the matter in the hands of Radhika Fox, the assistant EPA administrator for water. Fox could impose the veto, make changes or reject it entirely. She has 60 days to consider it.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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