The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday morning that it is effectively killing the controversial Pebble mine project in Southwest Alaska.
The decision caps 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 the salmon habitat, and it’s banning certain mining activities at the Pebble deposit.
United Tribes of Bristol Bay Executive Director Alannah 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 began this battle are no longer with us. New generations of our people have been born and raised with the cloud of Pebble hanging overhead,” she said at an EPA press conference on Monday. “But our ancestral responsibility to safeguard our watershed and fishery has united all of us in our work to defend the world’s last great wild salmon fishery.”
The EPA is exercising its rarely-used “veto authority” under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to prohibit mining the Pebble deposit. This is the 14th time in the history of the Clean Water Act and just the third time in the past 30 years that the federal agency has done so.
Hurley thanked the Biden administration multiple times. She pointed to its nation-to-nation discussions with the region’s tribes and said the federal government consulted with tribes when the state government would not. She also said tribes will continue their efforts to protect the region.
“Our work will not be done until every inch of our traditional homelands are 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 had proposed building an open-pit copper and gold mine about 17 miles from Iliamna Lake. 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 its Clean Water Act authority while the appeal process is ongoing is “unlawful and unprecedented,” and that doing so will likely result in legal action.
“For well over a decade, we have argued that fair treatment under the rules and regulations of the U.S should be followed for Pebble or any other development project,” said Shively’s statement. “Unfortunately, the Biden EPA continues to ignore fair and due process in favor of politics. This preemptive action against Pebble is not supported legally, technically, or environmentally.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a statement Tuesday along with leaders of several state departments blasting the EPA’s veto. He said the veto “sets a dangerous precedent.”
“Alarmingly, it lays the foundation to stop any development project, 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, Alaska 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 harm to salmon habitat would be “unacceptable.” It said it would damage or destroy 100 miles of streams that support spawning and breeding and approximately 2,100 acres of surrounding wetlands.
The EPA’s action also goes beyond banning Pebble’s proposed project. It bars future projects that would cause a similar loss of aquatic resources, and it restricts the discharge of mining materials in the South and North Fork Koktuli Rivers and in the Upper Talarik Creek.
Still, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the determination is focused on the Pebble deposit.
“We know that this particular project would have adverse impacts, that would significantly impact not only the industry, but also impact the ecosystem and have a significant impact from a cultural standpoint as well,” he said.
The EPA’s assistant administrator for its Office of Water, Radhika Fox, said the agency’s decision means that the Army Corps cannot grant Pebble’s appeal as proposed. But she said it does not ban every future project.
“It provides a roadmap for those types of projects that would create these adverse impacts, but does not at all apply to other projects that could potentially be considered,” she said. “And it does not apply to any resource development beyond this one in the state of Alaska.”
The EPA said the habitat around the Pebble deposit supports the diversity of Bristol Bay’s salmon and many other species, which in turn sustain the region’s Alaska Native communities and support its sport and commercial fisheries.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
[Sign up for Alaska Public Media’s daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]